The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 have transformed digital accessibility standards for public sector bodies.

Moving forward, public sector websites and mobile apps must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) level AA standards. These are a set of guidelines produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

According to WCAG, websites or mobile apps must be ‘perceivable, operable, understandable and robust’ to be accessible.

Following WCAG guidelines makes your website or mobile app accessible to as many people as possible, including disabled people.

Public sector websites must meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards by 23 September 2020. Public sector mobile apps must be accessible by 23 June 2021.

Who the laws apply to

The laws apply to public sector bodies like local authorities, central government departments, universities and NHS trusts.

Some organisations are exempt from the accessibility regulations. For example, non-government organisations like charities. Charities are exempt unless they are mostly financed by public funding, or provide services that are essential to the public or directed at disabled people.

Most charities are not listed as public sector bodies and are exempt. But some are, for example, like The British Museum, which is largely funded by the public. Any charity that isn’t publicly funded is only exempt if they do not provide services that are essential to the public or aimed at disabled people.

The only exempt public sector bodies are public broadcasters (full exemption) and schools (limited exemption). If you’re not sure whether your public sector body is exempt you should talk to your legal advisor.

Why the laws matter

There are 14 million disabled people in the UK. This is 22% of the population, more than one in every five people.

These laws are important as evidence shows that even in 2020, disabled people cannot use many UK websites because they are not accessible.

For example, a study by the society for innovation, technology and modernisation (Socitm) in 2018 showed only 60% of local authority websites’ home pages were accessible to disabled people.

This shows the scale of the barriers disabled people face online when they try to carry out day to day activities. The new laws should improve disabled peoples’ access to public sector digital services.

But in fact, making websites and mobile apps accessible helps everyone. Not just disabled people who have sensory, cognitive or motor impairments. That’s because good website accessibility improves the user experience. So it makes your website or mobile app easier for everyone to use.

Common examples of poor web accessibility practice

Common examples of poor web accessibility practice include images without alt-text and inaccessible documents such as PDFs.

Alt-text is a description of an image that can be read aloud by assistive technology such as screen readers. The purpose of alt-text is to provide an alternative way of communicating the information in an image to website users that cannot see it. Public sector websites and mobile apps must include alt-text with images to meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards. (Unless these images are decorative, in which case no alt-text is required.)

Also, any documents such as PDFs, which users need to use a service (for example, forms) must also be accessible to meet these standards.

Public sector bodies can make PDFs and other documents for websites and mobile apps accessible manually. Or they can use web accessibility software like Recite Me or browsealoud, which can make PDFs and other documents more accessible by reading them aloud.

Accessibility statements

An accessibility statement is a detailed, clear statement that describes how an organisation’s website or mobile app complies with these laws.

Public sector bodies must write an accessibility statement and publish it on their website by 23 September 2020. Public sector apps must include an accessibility statement by 23 June 2021.

An accessibility statement should:

  • explain the parts of the website or app that are not accessible and the reasons why
  • show how people can get alternative formats of content that is not accessible
  • give details of who to contact to report accessibility problems (including a link to a contact form)
  • explain the enforcement procedure for anyone not happy with the response (including a link to a contact form)

Here is a sample accessibility statement you can use to help you write a statement for your organisation’s public sector website or mobile app.

How the laws are enforced

The Government Digital Service (GDS) checks how public sector bodies comply with these laws on behalf of the Cabinet Office.

GDS can ask a public body for information. It can then decide if the body has not published an accessibility statement or if the accessibility statement doesn’t fully comply with the laws.

GDS will publish the name of the body and a copy of the decision, and notify the public sector body.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in England, Scotland and Wales will enforce the legal requirement to make public sector websites and apps accessible.

If a public sector body does not comply with an accessibility requirement of the laws it is a failure to make a reasonable adjustment.

This is a breach of the Equality Act 2010 and EHRC can use its legal powers to investigate offending organisations and take court action.

Ultimately, public sector bodies must meet the requirements of the new regulations to improve disabled people’s access to digital public services.

Those that do not may face public criticism, reputational damage and enforcement action.

More resources

Making online public services accessible (GOV.UK)
Sample accessibility statement for a fictional public sector website (GOV.UK)
Understanding new accessibility requirements for public sector bodies (Local Government Association)
The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 in full

Gavin B Harris is a Freelance PR Consultant and Copywriter. He specialises in technology, digital accessibility and inclusion. Gavin has hearing loss and tinnitus. One of his passions is promoting accessible digital products and services.