New rules on the accessibility of user interfaces: Are you compliant?

03.09.2019

In less than a month’s time, new rules on the accessibility of user interfaces (which will continue to apply post-Brexit) start to come into effect and, if you are a supplier of technology or content for websites or mobile apps, they may affect you.

Who might be affected?

Anyone supplying technology or content used in a public sector body’s websites or mobile apps may be affected.
The rules are set out in the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (the “Regulations”). They require public sector bodies to ensure that their websites and mobile apps are accessible. They cover public-facing and internal-facing websites, mobile apps used by the public and content within them.  So, public sector bodies will need to check that their websites and mobile apps comply and, if you supply technology or content that is incorporated into a public body’s websites or mobile apps, you may be asked to confirm that it is accessible, provide information about its accessibility and, potentially, to update it so that it is accessible.

We have also seen entities that are not public sector bodies adopt the Regulations as best practice. So, suppliers may find that requests are made by other customers too.

Why is this relevant now?

The Regulations will apply to all new websites published after 22 September 2019, and public sector bodies may be subject to enforcement action if they are not compliant.

The Regulations will apply to all other websites after 22 September 2020 and to mobile apps after 22 June 2021, giving public sector bodies time to comply. However, some public sector bodies may front-load the process and assess all their websites and mobile apps now.

What could suppliers expect?
  • Confirmation of accessibility: We have already seen requests for suppliers to confirm that their technology/content is accessible. As public sector body awareness and potential liability under the Regulations increases, we expect requests to increase and for public sector bodies to start taking a more structured approach. This could include accessibility questionnaires as part of a tender process and accessibility being part of new contract evaluations. Public sector bodies may also seek to embed accessibility reviews into contracts and make ad hoc requests for them.
  • Accessibility statements: Under the Regulations, public sector bodies must include accessibility statements on their websites and regularly review them. These must include information about content that is not accessible and why it is not accessible, so public sector body customers may look to you to for this detail.
  • Update: If public sector body customers are insistent that your technology/content is accessible, you may have to update it. Whether or not you have to do this and whether it is at your cost will depend on the specific circumstances and your contract (if any) with the public sector body customer.
So, what should suppliers do?

If you have a large proportion of customers who are public sector bodies (or who are likely to wish to adopt the Regulations as good practice), it will stand you in good stead to assess your compliance with the Regulations now. This will enable you to promptly and accurately respond to requests and, importantly, remedy any non-compliances or, if necessary, present them to your public sector body customers in the best possible light.

Here are some steps for technology/content suppliers to consider:

1. Review your customer base

Assessing whether the Regulations apply to your customers (or if they are likely to adopt them) will enable you to determine how much of an issue they might be.

Public sector bodies include central government and regional and local authorities, and also legal entities established to meet the needs of the general interest that are not industrial or commercial in character and that are substantially funded, managed or supervised by other public sector bodies. These could include Higher Education and Further Education institutions and NHS Trusts. However, the Regulations do not apply to public service broadcasters, certain NGOs and certain website or mobile app content of schools and nurseries.

If you find that the Regulations apply to many of your customers (or are likely to be adopted by them), we recommend taking further steps (see below). If not, you might consider this a low priority issue and park it until you actually receive a request.

2. Confirm how your product/service is used

The Regulations do not apply to all content. For instance, third party content not funded, developed or controlled by the public sector body, live time-based media and archives are excluded. Further, the Regulations only apply to mobile apps designed and developed by or on behalf of a public sector body for use on mobile devices.  They do not apply to the device’s mobile operating system or hardware. So, check whether your product / service falls within any of these exceptions.

3. Assess your product/service against the “accessibility requirement”

The requirement is that the website or mobile app is:

  • Perceivable – user interfaces and information must be presented in ways that users can perceive,
  • Operable – user interfaces and navigation must be operable,
  • Understandable – operation of user interfaces and information must be understandable, and
  • Robust – content must be robust enough to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

A website or mobile app will be deemed compliant if it meets international accessibility standard WCAG 2.1AA.

A good record of how your product/service meets the accessibility requirement (and any plans to fix any non-compliances) will help you to respond to requests from public sector body customers.

4. If it is not compliant, can you apply a quick fix?

Depending on your customer base and contractual arrangements, it may be simplest for you to update (or offer to update) your product/service so that it is compliant (e.g. if there is a low cost, straightforward fix).

5. If not, consider whether compliance would be a disproportionate burden

Public sector bodies don’t have to comply with the accessibility requirement if it would impose a disproportionate burden. This is, ultimately, an assessment for the public sector body, but it will need to be covered by their accessibility statement. So, it may be helpful (and you may have a very happy customer) if you are able to articulate why it would impose a disproportionate burden for the public sector body customer to insist that your product/service is compliant with the accessibility requirement (e.g. this would come at significant cost and have limited benefit). Bear in mind that it may be reasonable to fix certain issues now and make other changes later.

Even if compliance would impose a disproportionate burden, public sector bodies are still legally required to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities when needed. So, ideas for accessible alternatives would also likely be well received by public sector body customers.

6. Design with accessibility in mind

Finally, we all know that suppliers now need to adopt a “privacy by design” approach where appropriate. A similar “accessibility by design” approach to new development could avoid compliance issues and the need to make accessibility changes in the future, saving you both time and costs.  It would also ensure that your product/service remains attractive to public sector bodies.

Rebecca Andersen

Author