Web accessibility is an on-going legal and ethical commitment and therefore must form a part all companies thinking in the development of new technology in the online world. To achieve and effectively manage this commitment, developers should look to consider accessibility from the outset and to design new technologies with accessibility as a fundamental consideration.
In the UK the Equality Act 2010 addresses accessibility of goods and services. It is estimated that around 11 million people in the UK are covered by the Equality Act which makes it a legal right for those with physical and mental impairments to be treated as favourably as those without such challenges. Websites and other means of delivery of goods and services including apps and other online resources are subject to the need to implement AbD. It is estimated that whilst 74% of UK public sector sites are compliant, only 32% of private sector sites comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and 2.11.
In October 2016 the EU enacted Directive (EU) 1016/2102 (the “ Web Accessibility Directive”) on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies. This had the effect of requiring all public bodies within EU member states to ensure their websites and apps are accessible to persons with disabilities. All websites created after 23 September 2018 had to be made accessible by 23 September 2019 and existing websites have until 23 September 2020 to comply, all mobile applications are required to be made accessible by 23 June 2021.
The Web Accessibility Directive requires member states to monitor and report on the compliance of public bodies with this accessibility requirement, with reviews being conducted against the European standard, EN 301 549, which replicates the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Public bodies which do not comply with these obligations risk exposure to fines and other legal penalties, alongside the potentially more damaging negative publicity that comes with operating an exclusionary site in the 2020’s.
The scope of the application of the legislation has been a topic of discussion since the Web Accessibility Directive was enacted and there are some notable exclusions. The Directive applies to public sector bodies however public service broadcasters and most schools are excluded. In addition to these, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that do not carry out services “essential to the public” or that address the needs of persons with disabilities are excluded. Every member state is also given the ability to define the scope of applicability of the Directive and free to widen its reach to other sectors. As a consequence, private companies have paid close attention to the implementation of this legislation. Companies regularly transacting with or providing products or services to governmental sites must ensure their accessibility standards meet those required of the public sector body. Private entities offering services similar to those provided by public sites will also have to be mindful of alienating users with disabilities if their website or apps offer a less accessible experience.
The Web Accessibility Directive provides a highly detailed picture of what is required by public bodies and reflects the four principles of the WCAG which provide for accessibility, systems must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. At a high level public bodies must:
- Make website and app content accessible to everyone;
- Provide a public accessibility statement;
- Provide a feedback mechanism for users to report inaccessible content; and
- Provide a link to the enforcement procedure.
These requirements demonstrate that public bodies must think carefully about how they can ensure compliance with the law.
In the UK the Web Accessibility Directive is implemented by the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 20182. Useful guidance on how to meet these Regulations as well as specific Do’s and Don’ts on AbD are available on the Government website.3
The impact of COVID-19
During the “Lockdown”, coupled with the general acceleration of reliance on digital services and remote access to goods and utilities, there has been a greater need for AbD than ever. The US has seen an increase in litigation from individuals with disabilities against websites that do not comply with Accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and it is inevitable that similar claims and representative actions will increase in the UK.
A look to the future
Over the past decade we have seen that Privacy by Design has morphed into Ethics by Design and now Accessibility by Design is here to stay.