A new law concerning the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile apps came into effect in 2018. This article explains what the legislation means, what’s included and what isn’t, and the deadlines by which all public sector websites and mobile apps must comply.
A European Union (EU) Directive on the accessibility of public sector websites and apps was approved in October 2016 and has since been incorporated into the national laws of all EU member states. In the UK it’s known as the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Apps) Accessibility Regulations 2018.
Definition of public sector
The Public Sector Accessibility Regulations consider national, regional, and local authorities to be public sector bodies, as well as any organisation that receives public funding. Associations formed between one or more authorities or organisations that receive public funding are also counted as public sector bodies, providing they’re formed to serve the general interest and are not industrial or commercial.
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) like charities are not counted as public sector bodies by the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations, unless they:
- Are mostly funded by public money;
- Provide services that are essential to the public or that are aimed at disabled people.
Schools and nurseries are excluded, except for any websites or apps needed to use their services (like choosing school meal preferences or signing up to an activity club). Public sector broadcasters and their subsidiaries are also excluded.
It is important to realise that organisations not covered by the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations may still be covered by other legislation. In the UK for example, the Equality Act 2010 requires that all services (including websites and apps) are accessible to disabled people, no matter which sector the organisation operates in.
Definition of websites and apps
The Public Sector Accessibility Regulations apply to all (internal and external) websites and apps that belong to a public sector organisation, except:
- Extranets or intranets published before 23 September 2019, unless they have undergone a major revision since 23 September 2018;
- Websites and apps that are only for archival purposes, and that will not be updated after 23 September 2019.
Certain types of content are also excluded under the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations:
- Office file formats published before 23 September 2018, unless the documents are needed for administrative activities relating to the public sector organisation;
- Pre-recorded time-based media (audio or video) published before 23 September 2020;
- Live time-based media;
- Maps and mapping services, as long as maps intended for navigational purposes provide the essential information in an accessible format;
- Third party content that is not funded, created, or controlled by the public sector organisation;
- Reproductions of documents in heritage collections that cannot be made accessible without damaging the authenticity or preservation of the original, or that cannot be made accessible using automated or cost-efficient techniques.
The requirements for the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations are set out in clauses 9, 10, and 11 of European Standard EN 301 549. EN 301 549 defines Level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 as the required standard.
In addition to meeting WCAG 2.1 Level AA, the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations also say that an accessibility statement must be published for each website and app.
There are three deadlines for meeting the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations:
- Websites published after 23 September 2018 must conform to WCAG 2.1 Level A by 23rd September 2019;
- Websites published before 23 September 2018 must conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA by 23 September 2020;
- Apps must conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA by 21 June 2021.
It may not be necessary for a website or app to conform to the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations if it can be proved it would be a “disproportionate burden” to do so.
To claim disproportionate burden, public sector organisations need to assess the website or app and weigh the burden of making it accessible against the benefit to disabled people. The assessment should consider:
- The size of the organisation and the resources it has available;
- The purpose of the organisation and the services it provides;
- The cost of making the website or app accessible, and the impact the cost will have on the organisation;
- The benefit to people with disabilities, and the impact making the website or app accessible will have on their ability to participate in society.
A lack of time or accessibility knowledge are not reasons for claiming disproportionate burden. Not making accessibility a priority within an organisation is also not considered a good reason.
If a public sector organisation claims that making a website or app accessible would be a disproportionate burden, it must explain why in the accessibility statement for the website or app.
The Public Sector Accessibility Regulations say that every website and mobile app must have an accessibility statement, and that the statement must be regularly reviewed and updated.
The accessibility statement for a website must:
- Be in accessible format;
- Be available on the website itself.
The accessibility statement for a mobile app must:
- Be in accessible format;
- Be available at the point the app is downloaded, or available on the website of the public sector organisation.
The accessibility statement must conform to the model accessibility statement released by the EU. The model statement says that websites and apps should be monitored at least once a year for conformance with the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations.
Monitoring and reporting
Monitoring is carried out by each EU member state, and a regular report is filed with the EU. In the UK the Cabinet Office is responsible for monitoring UK conformance with the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations, and the first report will be submitted between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2021, then every 12 months after that.
To make monitoring and reporting consistent across the EU, a monitoring and reporting methodology has been agreed. The methodology is intended for use by EU member states, but it also provides a useful framework for use by public sector organisations to monitor the conformance of websites and mobile apps.
The methodology describes two monitoring methods:
- Simplified monitoring designed to detect non-conformance;
- Thorough monitoring designed to assess the extent of conformance.
In other words, each public sector organisation must monitor its websites and apps for conformance with the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations and use the information to update its accessibility statements, and each EU member state must monitor national conformance and use that information to report to the EU.