Council Accessibility Pages and Statements

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018, came into force on 23 September 2018. It aims to ensure that public sector websites and mobile apps are accessible to all users, especially those with disabilities. It specifies that public sector websites will need to meet accessibility standards and publish an accessibility statement.

In November 2018 the Government Digital Service (GDS) advised that they were working on a model accessibility statement for public sector website owners. This was due in the New Year but so far has not been published. Like other local authority digital managers I have already taken some action and added an accessibility statement to our website. Aware that it wasn’t that great I thought I’d spend a little time checking other council websites for any best practice about how to write accessibility statements. As I struggled to find anything meaningful I decided to carry out some personal research out of work hours and reviewed accessibility pages and accessibility statements for all councils in the UK (over 400 websites). I have always had a keen interest in finding out what other councils are doing and how their websites are developing, so this was also a good opportunity to update my knowledge.

My findings are outlined in this blog post. What I discovered was that very few if any councils have so far produced a meaningful accessibility statement. This wasn’t a great surprise as there hasn’t so far been any great encouragement for councils to do this.  What did come as a surprise was that accessibility pages on council websites generally appear to be out-of-date or inadequate. I was surprised that web accessibility isn’t given greater prominence and attention on council websites. If councils are putting effort into improving the accessibility of their websites, then they are underselling the work that they are doing by not updating their accessibility pages or making them hard to find.

I hope that this blog post will encourage local authorities to review their accessibility pages. It is in no way meant to run down the hard work that councils are doing on web accessibility, but I do think that there is work to be done across the sector with regards to the range and usefulness of information provided. I will focus on the wider picture and will promote good practice, but I have no intention of naming and shaming specific councils. I don’t see that I have any right to do this or indeed think that there is any value in doing so.

How many websites have an accessibility page?

Pie chart showing council websites with an accessibility page. 86% do and 14% of councils don't have an accessibility page.I checked each council website to try to find an accessibility page. I started on the homepage, where I expected to find a link to an accessibility page, either in the header or the footer.

If this failed I searched for accessibility on a council’s website. From this I found that 14% of council websites don’t appear to have an accessibility page. If they do, then it is pretty hidden and it is shouldn’t be.

I expected to find a link to an accessibility page on all council websites and was surprised when I couldn’t find one. A few of those without an accessibility page did present accessibility features, such as providing the ability to change font sizes and a colour scheme.

How easy is it to find the accessibility page?

Pie chart showing how easy it is to find the accessibility page. On 72% of council sites it is easy and on 28% of sites it isn't easy to find.It should be easy to find the accessibility page. The prime location is the first link in the header, but anywhere in the header or footer should make it easy to find. I certainly didn’t expect to search for the accessibility page or to find it in the help section.

I found that it was easy to find on 72% of local authority sites. I had to use the search to find the accessibility page on 11% of websites.

How many websites have an Accessibility Statement?

Websites with an Accessibility Statement. 14% do and 86% don't.I didn’t expect to find many Accessibility Statements as full guidance for this hasn’t been issued by central government. I was surprised to find that 14% of councils have an Accessibility Statement. However, many of these can’t really be proper statements as they just contain basic details about accessibility features. I suspect some have just renamed their accessibility page as an Accessibility Statement. Nice try but I certainly wasn’t fooled!

One site proudly announces that the website doesn’t have a separate accessibility statement because they have tried to design the website to be as accessible and usable as possible for every user. That is entirely laudable but I’m sorry you now need to provide an Accessibility Statement!

Less than a handful of council websites currently contain all the key elements of an Accessibility Statement, which should:

  • list any inaccessible parts of the website or app
  • show how people with access needs can get alternatives to content that’s not accessible
  • provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues
  • provide information on the enforcement procedure if people are not happy with the response
  • be published in a fully accessible form
  • follow a consistent format
  • be updated annually

Let’s have a closer look at the first three of these requirements.

How many councils list inaccessible parts of a website or app?
Websites detailing inaccessible parts of a website or app. 5% of council websites do and 95% don't detail accessibility issues.

At present only a small number of websites specifically list inaccessible parts of a website or app. Issues raised cover accessibility issues with specific content formats such as videos, PDFs and maps. A bigger issue relates to third party applications. Some councils demonstrate that they have reviewed their wider website estate and list accessibility issues on specific third-party websites or applications. Some take ownership of accessibility issues and state that they are working with suppliers to put things right. A few councils, however, state that they aren’t responsible for the accessibility of third-party websites and applications.

How many councils provide alternatives to content that’s not accessible?

Pie chart showing percentage of councils providing content in alternative formats.

Only 5% of councils currently provide alternatives to content that is known not to be accessible. Alternatives quoted include large print, Braille, audio cassette and CD. Alternatives used to be regularly offered in the days when print rather than online was more readily available.

The demand for alternative accessible formats can be significantly, though not completely, reduced if the information provided is:

  • written in plain language
  • as concise as possible
  • designed to be as legible as possible

How many websites provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues?

Pie chart showing percentage of councils providing contact details to report issuesForty per cent of councils provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues. The contact point tends to either be a generic customer services or web team email. There are few examples of forms set up to capture specific feedback or issues.

Websites should actively encourage feedback on accessibility and there really is no excuse for not including details of who to contact.

Good examples of council accessibility pages and statements

These are the accessibility pages and statements that for me stood out from the rest:

  1. Blackpool Councilhttps://www.blackpool.gov.uk/Accessibility.aspx
  2. Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Councilhttps://www.hinckley-bosworth.gov.uk/accessibility

There were others that impressed me in terms of approach and content, but they unfortunately hadn’t been updated for 2 or more years.

How can councils improve their web accessibility content

To conclude this blog post I’d like to share some thoughts about how councils can improve the range of information that they provide about web accessibility. I suspect that the catalyst to producing meaningful Accessibility Statements will happen when the GDS (Government Digital Service) issues a model statement.

  1.  Review your accessibility content

    The best advice I can give to councils is simply to revisit their accessibility pages. Many are clearly out of date and have not been checked for years. It was quite easy to identify out of date content because of references to:

    a) Out of date web browsers and operating systems

    I found plenty of references to IE6, but more worryingly to IE4 (released in 1997) and Netscape Navigator (released in 1994). I also found a few references to Windows XP (support for this operating system ended in 2014). One council warns users that ‘Global internet corporations such as Google and Facebook are already taking measures to de-support Internet Explorer 6.’ 3 years ago this advice might have been useful, but not anymore.

    b) Old versions of the WCAG guidelines

    WCAG 2.1 should be referenced on accessibility pages as this is the current version of the guidelines. Many sites correctly mention it but I did find a significant number that quote version 2.0 (published in 2008) and even version 1.0 (published in 1999.)

    c) Last published dates

    The clearest indication of out of date content are last published dates. I found several dating back to 2015 and 2016.

  2. Set a regular review date for accessibility content

    Having reviewed your accessibility content make sure that you set a regular review date for it and update it annually. Include it in your website content review programme and treat it in the same way that you would any other content on your website.

  3. Think beyond accessibility software

    Many councils have invested in accessibility services such as Browsealoud and Readspeaker, or accessibility features provided by the web content management software used (Jadu is a good example here).  These products help to improve the experience for users by enabling users change to change site settings (for example text size and colour contrast) enable text to speech and provide language translation.

    These products are useful, though improvements to browser technology mean that many of these services can be accessed by users for every website that they visit, not just yours. People with accessibility needs can adjust their devices to access your website before they visit and so may not need to use the add on software that you provide.

    Adding accessibility software doesn’t automatically make your website fully accessible. It can complement the work that you are doing to improve the accessibility of your website, but it doesn’t replace it. Many councils use their accessibility pages to promote the accessibility software that they use and offer no other useful information about how accessibility is being managed and improved on the website. My advice is to think beyond the accessibility software that you provide, detail your approach to accessibility, detail known issues and explain how users can get in contact to report issues.

Ten top tips for designing an accessible council website

There are two things in my work life that I am passionate about – website accessibility and building effective council websites. So I thought I’d write a blog post that combines both of these passions, particularly as I believe that website accessibility is fundamental to building an effective website. This blog post is aimed at digital professionals in local government but what it covers is relevant to anybody who is building or has responsibility for managing a website.

What is web accessibility and why is it important?

Web accessibilityWeb accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with and can contribute to the Web. The Web is now a fundamental part of our daily lives and a key resource for education, government, commerce, health care and more. It is essential that the Web is accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities.

As more and more services become ‘digital by default’ we have a responsibility for making sure that they are designed to be accessible to all. If we don’t we will be excluding people with disabilities from accessing our services and making our websites inhospitable places to visit.

Web accessibility is also important from a business perspective. Websites that are accessible to people with disabilities will also perform better for all visitors. Research by SOCITM, the representative body for public service ICT professionals, found that the performance on a number of tasks on council websites was 41% better on the accessible sites than the rest. SOCITM have said that its research suggests “a significant relationship between the accessibility of the websites for people with disabilities and the more general usability of the websites for everyone.” Put simply, web accessibility matters and we need to take it seriously.

Disability infographic - source: Usablenet
Disability infographic – source: Usablenet

 

Why do council websites need to meet accessibility guidelines?

Nobody should be excluded from accessing services online. To do so would represent a breach of the Equality Act 2010.

All government websites, whether built for central or local government, need to meet or exceed level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. These guidelines explain how to make websites accessible for people with disabilities.

How accessible are council websites?

Pie chart showing the accessibility of council websites

The accessibility of council websites across the UK currently leaves a lot to be desired. In 2015 the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) carried out a review into the accessibility of 407 council websites. Overall, 176 councils (43%) were rated by the DAC as satisfactory, but only three sites out of this total were rated very good. Seven sites (2%) were rated inaccessible and another 225 sites (55%) were rated poor.

The results of the review make it clear that in general local authorities need to take web accessibility more seriously. Over half of the councils in the UK are potentially failing to meet legal requirements but perhaps more importantly they are failing to make their websites accessible for their respective disabled residents.

What can councils do to make their websites accessible?

The starting point is for councils to acknowledge that web accessibility is an essential requirement and one that needs ongoing attention. To help councils to meet this challenge I have identified ten tips for designing an accessible council website:

  1. Understand the difficulties experienced by disabled web users

    The only true way to understand web accessibility is to experience some of the issues that disabled users have to endure on a day to day basis. My first experience of this was on a visit to the RNIB where a blind web user demonstrated how he used a screen reader to visit websites. I was shocked at just how frustrating this can be on a poorly developed website and amazed at the patience that the web user showed as thousands of web links were read out to him at lightning speed. This experience ignited my passion for getting web accessibility right.

    There are a number of ways that you can better understand the difficulties experienced by disabled web users. One of the best ways is to get in contact with local disability groups and ask to meet up with members to discuss their web accessibility experiences and challenges. An alternative is to contact organisations that provide web accessibility services, such as the Shaw Trust, the Digital Accessibility Centre and the RNIB. These organisations can provide help and advice, training and web testing services.

  2. Raise awareness of accessibility amongst internal audiences and particularly to senior managers

    Raising awareness of web accessibility throughout the council will help to reduce issues arising and ensure buy in from senior managers. It will help, for example, to ensure that content is provided in accessible formats and help to avoid inappropriate purchases of inaccessible third party web applications.

    One way to raise awareness is to develop a simple online training session that all staff can access to improve their understanding of web accessibility. Another way is to brief procurement staff to make sure that web accessibility issues are considered when purchasing any new web based application. Web managers also should devote time to briefing senior managers and helping them to appreciate the business benefits of tackling web accessibility.

  3. Design in accessibility at the beginning of a website

    It is possible to fix accessibility issues on existing websites, but this can be a long and arduous task, particularly if a council is using proprietary software such as a web content management system. My advice is to carry out a full review of web accessibility and determine whether it is feasible to resolve major issues. If it is then put together a programme of work to fix accessibility issues and work meticulously and patiently through this, testing as you go along to assess your progress. If it isn’t feasible to retro fix web accessibility issues then consider carrying out a website redevelopment. Failure to meet web compliance can help to build a business case for website redevelopment particularly as there is a legal requirement to meet web accessibility standards. 

    If you are using external suppliers to assist with your redevelopment then make sure that you check their accessibility credentials before employing them. Most web design and development agencies will claim to have an understanding of web accessibility, but make sure that you challenge this thoroughly during the procurement phase. Beware suppliers who offer to do the minimum needed to meet accessibility standards or suggest that this can be sorted out by simply plumbing in some external web accessibility services.

  4. Build accessibility into criteria for procurement

    As mentioned above procurement is a key phase in your web accessibility journey. Choosing the right supplier is critical otherwise you may design in accessibility issues rather than avoiding them. Make meeting WAI AA accessibility compliance a key requirement but don’t stop there. Ask suppliers to provide examples of websites that they have built to demonstrate how they have tackled web accessibility – and then test those websites to confirm that they are compliant. Beware suppliers who simply claim that web accessibility issues have been introduced by local authorities after the website build. There will certainly be issues introduced after the build has been completed, but it should be fairly easy to spot issues that suppliers themselves have built into website templates.

  5. Make accessibility a key responsibility of all members of your web team

    Web accessibility is more than just a set of technical issues, so don’t confine responsibility for it to the technical member(s) of the team. Accessibility issues can be added in through content and design, so make sure that every member of your web team fully understands web accessibility. Invest in training where you can and if you are the manager make sure that you inspire your team to keep their knowledge up to date and become champions of web accessibility. Recruit people who have an appreciation of and passion for accessibility and make sure that the responsibilities for it are clearly referenced in their job descriptions.

  6. Select a range of automated tools to assist with reviewing accessibility

    There are a wide range of tools to use to help you to assess and manage web accessibility. Many of these are free and they will help to save you a great deal of time. Council websites are generally large websites containing several hundred pages (if not thousands in some cases), so manual checking really isn’t an option. Automated testing will help to identify issues that occur across the whole website or just on specific page types. Free examples include Wave, AChecker and Cynthia Says and paid for examples include Powermapper and AccessIN.

    There are also a range of paid for web accessibility services that are available which can automatically alert you to issues as they occur. The value of these services is that they help you to fix issues in a timely way. Examples include Sitemorse and Siteimprove.

  7. Complement automated testing with real life accessibility testing by disabled web users

    Automated testing is useful but it can never be 100% accurate and it may not always reveal issues that can affect disabled users. So I would always recommend that you complement automated testing with real life testing by disabled users. Organisations such as the Shaw Trust, DAC and RNIB provide comprehensive testing services that cut across a wide range of disabilities, using a variety of assistive web technologies. If you can’t afford paid for testing then I would recommend approaching local disability groups whose members may well be more than happy to volunteer their help.

  8. Consider the accessibility of your third party web applications

    Sorting out web accessibility on the council’s website is important but it is not the end of the story. Most council websites use a wide range of third party web applications to support services such as planning, payments, bookings and mapping. These applications also need to meet web accessibility guidelines otherwise disabled users will fail to complete the task(s) that they have set out to complete when visiting your website.

    Third party website applications pose a major challenge for local authorities as resolving issues is in the hands of suppliers. One way to reduce these issues is to build accessibility into the criteria for procurement. This will help when purchasing new external services but not help with existing suppliers unless contracts are periodically reviewed and accessibility can be set as criteria for renewal.

  9. Build accessibility checks into the publishing process

    Once your new site is live you will need to actively build in accessibility checking into the publishing process. It is very easy to import in accessibility issues through content, either by importing spurious code or by failing to make content accessible. Importing Microsoft Word content and failing to tag PDF documents are responsible for many of the web accessibility issues arising from content.

    Where possible I would advise that you build accessibility checks into the publishing process to ensure that issues are considered and tested before they go live. This can be done manually and assisted by the use of checklists to remind web content authors of what to consider. A good example of a checklist is Userium.

    I would also recommend using content standards to reinforce best practice and help to avoid accessibility issues. For example check out the LocalGov Digital Content Standards.

  10. Carry out regular web accessibility testing

    My final tip is to carry out regular testing of your council website. Testing should be considered an ongoing task and requirement to prevent major accessibility issues from occurring. Failing to complete regular testing is a key reason for the poor state of web accessibility across local authorities. Testing can often be seen as a one off task, done at the start of a new website and then forgotten about until the next website redevelopment. The challenge is to keep the momentum going and not to lose sight of web accessibility.

    Using external website accreditation services (such as provided by the Shaw Trust, DAC and RNIB) can certainly help to keep your focus on this challenge. But beware of treating website accreditation like an annual car MOT. If issues arise they need to be dealt with in a timely way and not left until the next yearly inspection.

I hope that these tips will encourage you to take a fresh look at the web accessibility of your council website. If you have any further tips to contribute please add your comments below. I’d be particularly interested to hear about how you deal with web accessibility issues or if you have any other suggestions for useful web accessibility tools or testing techniques.