Emily Coward, Head of Development at Microserve, discusses what the EU Web Accessibility Directive is and what public sector organisations need to know
New legislation from the EU means that public sector websites must comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive if they are launched after 23rd September 2019. For existing websites, public sector organisations have slightly longer to make their services accessible to everyone. With the next deadline for existing sites in September 2020, not too far away, this guide explores the practical steps organisations can take to comply.
What is the EU Web Accessibility Directive?
An estimated 80 million people in the EU live with a disability, making it more necessary than ever to ensure everyone has equal access to digital products and services. The EU Web Accessibility Directive is a new piece of legislation which aims to consolidate accessibility standards, making web accessibility a legal requirement.
The Directive requires that member states have processes in place to “ensure that public sector bodies take the necessary measures to make their websites and mobile applications more accessible”.
As with most legislation, there are some exclusions which apply. These include broadcasters, some schools and nurseries, and private organisations, along with non-government organisations (such as charities) which “provide services that are not essential to the public or services that do not specifically address the needs of persons with disabilities”.
Unlike the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the Directive does not include rules about how to make websites and mobile applications accessible. However, the four WCAG principles which provide the foundation for accessibility (perceivable, operable, understandable and robust) are present throughout. This begins to unify the digital accessibility standards for EU member states, by putting WCAG at the core.
How does this affect public sector organisations?
Any new websites launched after 23rd September 2019 must meet accessibility standards and must have an accessibility statement.
If a public sector organisation launched a website before 23rd September 2019, the website must meet the accessibility standards by 23rd September 2020. Improving accessibility for an existing website is notoriously more difficult than building with accessibility in mind from the beginning. Organisations with older sites, therefore, have slightly longer to meet the required standards.
Accessibility standards also apply to mobile apps, however, organisations have until 23rd June 2021 to meet that deadline.
While organisations are progressing in their efforts to make services more accessible, it’s clear there is a lot more to do for existing websites and apps – and they are running out of time. With the next deadline approaching rapidly, what practical steps can public sector bodies take to raise their accessibility game?
Audit your websites
A recent survey revealed that 40% of local authority homepages aren’t accessible to people with disabilities. Organisations must therefore first understand how an existing website is performing in terms of accessibility
Common issues include: failing to provide a good heading structure and links with sufficient context, not using visible indicators to show where the keyboard focus is, not adding skip links to jump over repetitive page content and not having sufficient contrast between text and its background.
Completing an accessibility audit will help find where there are barriers for people with disabilities and help plan in any remediation work necessary to meet the standards.
Add an accessibility statement
The Directive set a deadline of 23rd December 2018 for public sector organisations to add an accessibility statement to their websites.
When an accessibility audit or accessibility evaluation has taken place, the results from the audit can be used to help write an accessibility statement. The accessibility statement should be regularly updated and the W3C suggests including the following as a minimum:
- A commitment to accessibility for people with disabilities
- The accessibility standard applied, such as WCAG 2.1
- Contact information in case people encounter problems
- Any known limitations of the website, to avoid frustrating your visitors
- Measures taken by your organization to ensure accessibility
Make the content as accessible as possible
The most difficult stage for any organisation is making the content as accessible as possible. While building accessibility in from the start of a web development project is always the best route to ensure your services are accessible to everyone, it is vital the team responsible for planning, updating and writing content are also committed to high accessibility standards.
Web accessibility isn’t a one-time task, it’s an on-going commitment. Website content and development work needs to be constantly monitored and updated to achieve ongoing compliance. Performing regular audits or evaluations and asking people with disabilities to test products and services ensures websites and apps are as accessible as possible.