Is the public sector ready for the Web Accessibility Directive?

Bryn Anderson of Siteimprove introduces the incoming EU legislation that will require all government entities to make their online homes more accessible


Most organisations have heard of the GDPR, the all-encompassing EU regulation covering personal data that’s being implemented in May – but few are aware of another highly significant directive due to come into effect in September. 

The EU Web Accessibility Directive is a radical overhaul of the structure and content of public bodies websites and mobile apps that will transform the way 13 million disabled people in the UK access the internet. It requires “that public sector bodies take the necessary measures to make their websites and mobile applications more accessible by making them perceivable, operable, understandable and robust”.

The directive is set to be transposed into British law later this year, requiring first new, and then existing public-sector websites and apps to meet minimum accessibility standards. Just as all government buildings must legally be accessible to all who wish to access them, so too must their digital gateways.

The directive also requires all public-sector bodies publish an accessibility statement on their websites. This statement sets out clear expectations regarding the accessibility of the website and its content. It must also include a feedback mechanism, such as a contact form, for users to submit requests for alternatives for non-accessible content and raise more general complaints regarding the accessibility of the website. 

The directive – the first of its kind in Europe – emphasises that digital inclusion is a right, not a privilege.

With few exemptions, all public-sector bodies will be affected. This includes, but is not limited to, central and local government, police, emergency services, and the NHS.

Among those excluded are private organisations, broadcasters and NGOs that don’t provide services that are essential to the public, or services that specifically address the needs of people with disabilities. Excluded content includes mapping services, provided that essential information is made accessible, third-party content that hasn’t been developed or owned by the public-sector body and live video and audio content.

Member states can also exclude kindergartens and nurseries, except for content relating to essential online administrative functions.

Individual member states can extend the scope of the directive beyond the public sector, should they choose to include private sector companies that serve the general public.

However, there is no indication that the UK government will go down this path.

Unlike the GDPR directive, it is unknown whether the UK’s yet-to-be-established regulatory body will have the power to fine or otherwise impose penalties. It is down to individual countries to determine their enforcement procedures. 

A methodology devised by the EU will be set up to show how to evaluate compliance, and each member state will be expected to use this as a guideline when monitoring. This process must be in place by 23 December 2018 and, from 2021, member states must submit a report every three years describing their monitoring, compliance, and enforcement efforts.

Although the directive targets the public sector, it is likely to have a significant impact on private companies. For example, technology providers that want to sell to the public sector will need to ensure their products are compliant. Hence software companies like Microsoft will have to ensure Microsoft Office products like SharePoint meet accessibility guidelines if they are to be used by public servants. 

However, the rollout of the Directive is staggered across four deadlines, providing some breathing time for public bodies to prepare. And although the UK is on course to leave the EU by 29 March 2019, it will have already transposed the directive into British law by then.

The first deadline is 23 September 2018 when the UK – along with all members of the EU – must put the directive into law. On this day, those covered by the directive become legally accountable for the accessibility of their web and mobile applications. 

The directive then sets out three additional compliance deadlines:

  • September 23 2019 – all new websites and apps published after this date will become subject to the directive
  • September 23 2020 – all websites published before 23 September 2018 will become subject to the directive
  • September 23 2021 – all mobile apps will become subject to the directive

If this has come to you as a surprise, you won’t be alone. But the reality is the Web Accessibility Directive is on its way. 

As more of our public services move online, digital inclusion has become more necessary than ever before – and an inadequate web accessibility offering will soon no longer be an option.

Sam Trendall

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