Though it didn’t make that much of a splash when they became law last September, The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018, the UK version of the EU’s Directive on the same reform, really do matter to UK public sector website managers.
Why? Because the are - as described by GDS - an urgent prompt for that all sector bodies to “review and test their websites for user accessibility now,” as they need to meet much more stringent accessibility levels to ensure public sector websites (and mobile apps) are accessible to all users, especially those with disabilities.
In practical terms, that means all websites published since September 2018 will need a statement on what they plan to do to improve accessibility by September 2019, while websites that went live before that date have until 2020 to comply. And at least one authority, Kent County Council, has taken up the challenge already.
This new Directive and the work that has already been completed means we are laying the groundwork for all future digital services whether internal or external to be accessible, supporting all staff and citizens. Along with this, we are auditing our systems to find accessibility gaps in our existing web estate and make improvements.
The speaker in question here is George Rhodes, Digital Accessibility Compliance Lead at the County Council, which in turn is part of the county-wide Kent Connects Partnership, which comprises all local authorities in Kent & Medway, Kent Police, Kent Fire and Rescue, parts of the NHS, and three local Universities.
The Kent Connects partnership is focussed on sharing best practice, collaborative projects and reducing costs for its partners through “joined up” working, Rhodes told diginomica/government, adding that the best way to see the regulations is as a tool to be used to incentivise a better level of service not just from the County Council, but the whole of the sector across the county. For this reason, he adds, his team and University of Kent have opted to lead on this agenda through the Partnership to share accessibility learning and skills.
How big a problem is this on the ground? Rhodes points out that Kent has 1.555 million citizens as of the 2011 census - and no less than 257,038, or 17.6%, of them have a registered disability or health complaint that affects their daily life:
We see that quite a lot of the users who require our services the most are more vulnerable, for one reason or another; often they have a quite significant overlap with people who have some form of additional access need. By not making our services fully accessible, we are massively penalising those who we need to help more than any other group.
So a serious user need here, and work that probably needed doing no matter that the new regulations are in place - but what does that work look like in practice? The answer seems to be organised and systematic, but also pretty pragmatic:
We are not using any specific technology to solve these issues, as they are in the main compliance issues and vary across our digital estate. That means our solution needs to work for every product type we use. Our entire auditing process and guidance is built to be product agnostic, with accessibility improvement guidance only going into specific product guidance when necessary to solve technical issues.
Rhodes adds that to check sites and apps meet the new Regulations accessibility targets, he and his co-workers across the Kent public sector are using an auditing process based on standard free tools and default browser ability to act as a real user would so that they can more accurately replicate the issues their customers may have and deal with them:
This also helps us to ensure that all of our platforms are built to interact with these common tools and conform to our users’ requirements - so rather than implementing specific accessibility solutions and forcing users to adapt to an individual method, we adapt to the varied accessibility requirements of our users.
A pool of future accessibility-aware talent
The two Kent bodies working together to deal with accessibility on this project, the Council and Kent University, have also managed to publish their Accessibility Statements nice and early - a requirement under the Regulations - and note that all UK public sector organisations need to publish one by September 2019, which are seen as part of the wider plan to provide a consistent level of accessibility across the entire Kent public sector.
We asked how Rhodes and his fellow Kent accessibility experts are measuring the impact of this early work on meeting the new standards.
It will always be difficult to directly quantify the impact of our work, as it’s changing the fundamental delivery of digital services. What I can say is that the County Council has a full auditing process in place, has included accessibility into all future procurement requirements for digital systems, and we have delivered training to many of our staff already. County Council staff across all our services produce digital content, whether this be web pages, documents, emails etc., and as such all of our staff need to be aware of their responsibilities in helping us to deliver accessible content.
I can also say these changes are having a significant effect in ensuring that all future systems procured will be accessible from the outset, and that we are already proactively seeking out and fixing accessibility issues in our existing systems.
It seems that another positive outcome of this accessibility collaboration is that Digital Accessibility is now a formal part of University of Kent School of Computing Curriculum as an assessed topic in modules across all three years of learning. Rhodes stresses that this means that as a local graduate employer, he can now be sure that when he hires staff who have done this on their course, he knows they will have directly relevant skills.
In fact, skills are a big part of the challenge that not just Kent, but many local authorities will face here, Rhodes warns:
A lot of the developers that I deal with are almost coming completely fresh to accessibility. They have no knowledge of it in some cases, and the lack of skills is a massive blocker for us; we don't have enough people who understand what the problems are, what they need to solve - to be able to look at a website and say that's going to be an issue for someone who uses a keyboard, that's going to be an issue for someone using a screen reader.
But, a good start has been made, so we asked what the next steps are for Kent public services and the new Regulations:
In six months, we would like to be further along our own auditing plan, and have made significant progress in improving our existing systems and our staff training agenda. As leaders on accessibility within the wider Kent Partnership, we would also hope that by sharing our experience and continuing to support our partners in their accessibility work, we would see an increase in accessibility in all public sector organisations across the county.
Disclosure: we interviewed Rhodes but also heard him speak at last week’s Annual General Meeting of the UK Association for Accessible Formats, which sets standards and promotes best practice for accessible documents in the UK.