Public Sector Accessibility Legislation: Rethink Your Approach

Paul Boag

I see many public sector organisations in full firefighting mode due to the upcoming accessibility legislation. However, the approach being adopted by many makes little sense.

In case you don’t know, publicly funded websites will soon need to be accessible by law. Websites published on or after 23rd September 2018 are officially out of time to comply as, while older sites have a respite until next year.

Of course, all websites are required to provide an accessible service by the disability discrimination act. However, this new legislation has put the fear of God into many publicly funded organisations.

A Panicked Response to Public Sector Accessibility Legislation

The most common response to this near hysteria in some quarters is to commission an audit to establish just how bad the situation is. However, many publicly funded websites are enormous, running into tens or even hundreds of thousands of pages.

Most organisations cannot possibly undertake this kind of work internally as their web teams are ludicrously under-resourced at the best of times.

This policy of auditing has led to a bonanza for consultancies and agencies as organisations outsource the work they are unable to do internally. However, even though this is the recommended approach by the UK Government, it is not the best investment of limited resources in my opinion.

An Accessibility Audit Isn’t a Long Term Fix

Let’s imagine for a minute an organisation was capable of identifying every accessibility flaw on a website consisting of many thousands of pages. Let’s also imagine they had the time and resources to fix all of those issues before the 2020 deadline. Then what?

Yes, for one glorious moment, the website would be accessible. However, the moment somebody uploads a video and doesn’t include captions or adds an image without a proper alt attribute, you are non-compliant. You are breaking the law.

Accessibility isn’t a state one achieves, so much as an attitude or culture one adopts. For a publicly funded organisation to comply with the law, they need to think longer-term than fixing the immediate issues.

Policies Will Help but Are Not Enough

Admittedly many organisations are more forward-looking than that. They are putting in place policies to ensure long term accessibility. In particular, they are putting together accessibility statements as recommended by the UK government guidance.

However, good though an accessibility statement is, no policy is going to fix the underlying issues. In my experience, most policies are written, posted online somewhere and then forgotten. You have ticked the box and moved on. However, a statement or policy doesn’t fix anything. The organisation will still end up in breach of regulations. They will simply be oblivious about the fact, reassured by the fact that they have ticked some boxes.

Don’t get me wrong; we need the policy and should clean-house before moving forward. However, we cannot stop there.

In my opinion, we also need three other things.

We Need a Procedure for Addressing Accessibility Issues

First, we need a procedure for collecting and responding to accessibility queries. That is important once you think about the real-world scenario that leads to prosecution for breaking accessibility laws.

There is no official person trawling the web systematically reviewing every publicly funded website checking if it is compliant. If an organisation is found to breach the regulations, it begins with a frustrated user. That is somebody who tried to access content and could not.

It is when you fail to address those user’s concerns that things begin to escalate. That happens because there is no clear procedure for dealing with these enquiries. That is often because the nature of the complaints falls between organisational silos. After all, whose responsibility is it to fix these issues? Is it the content creator, I.T., the web team, marketing, or those responsible for disability compliance?

Ars Technica article reporting the fact that Target was ordered to pay $6 million for accessibility breaches.
We know from case studies like Target that accessibility prosecutions do not simply happen out of the blue.

There are enough case studies of this happening (Target and the Sydney Olympics spring to mind) to know this is how things pan out.

With that in mind, it makes a lot more sense to create a mechanism by which users can report problems, the organisation can address them, and the user can monitor progress.

We Need to Rationalise Content and Content Creators

The second thing that public sector organisations need to do is undertake rationalisation of online content, and who has access to create it.

For too long many publicly funded organisations have allowed a free for all when anybody and everybody can post content online. The result is a ridiculous number of pages, much of which is either out of date or hardly ever visited. That is simply unsustainable in the light of entirely justified accessibility requirements.

Ironically the best way to make an entire website accessible is to reduce the number of pages it has significantly. That makes it a lot more manageable.

Alongside that, we also need to significantly reduce the number of people who can post content online. The primary reason websites are inaccessible is not down to the underlying technology or code. It is down to people uploading material that they haven’t created with accessibility in mind.

By reducing the number of people who can post content, you can ensure that those who do are digital professionals that know what they are doing. We need to end the era of some secretary uploading a PDF because the boss has asked to put it online.

That brings me on to the last thing I passionately believe needs doing. There needs to be a fundamental shift in organisational mindset towards digital and by extension accessibility.

We Need Properly Trained Digital Professionals

Those who are posting online need proper training. Not just some one-off workshop that people have to attend or a policy they have to read. They need to become appropriately qualified to post content online, with the training and resources to support them in their job.

There needs to be self-learning material people can refer to, and that new staff are required to complete. There should be adequate training budgets and time to keep up to date with the rapid rate of innovation.

Most of all, those who are creating content need to be spending a significant amount of time doing that job. If it continues to be something staff do once every few months, they are not going to remember any training. They will make accessibility mistakes, alongside many others.

Of course, saying all of this is easy, but making it happen is hard. Digital teams have long been arguing for centralisation, more investment and the rationalisation of sites. However, perhaps now, things might finally change.

A Chance for a Fundamental Rethink

In many ways, the upcoming accessibility laws provide publicly funded organisations with a unique opportunity. They have a chance to start rationalising their web presences and fundamentally changing the way they work. Accessibility could very well be the catalyst to a fundamental rethink about how these organisations approach digital in the future.

Sure, do your audit and fix the immediate problems but do not stop there. Put together a strategy, and associated training programme that ensures people posting online are professionals who know what they are doing.