Councils ‘have work to do’ ahead of new rules on accessible public sector websites

Councils responsible for the 40% of local authority gov.uk websites found not to be accessible to people with disabilities will need to fix their sites ahead of a new EU directive coming into force from September 2019. Some sites may already be in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

Testing of 270 UK council websites completed in December 2017 by Better Connected, the annual survey of council website quality, found that only 60% of home pages were accessible to people with disabilities, including those using assistive technologies.

The test was stage one of a wider ranging accessibility test that will be completed later in the year. The result shows a small deterioration on last year’s stage one test, when 65% of the 270 councils tested passed.

Testing was carried out for Better Connected by the Digital Accessibility Centre, using automated tools and manual checking. Every member of the DAC user testing team has a disability, among them visual impairment, dyslexia, mobility impairment and learning disabilities.

The stage one test examines home pages only on the 14 testing criteria used in the full Better Connected test, which must be passed before councils can be awarded the top Better Connected rating for local authority websites of four stars.

 

Key findings

In all, 86% of the council websites that failed the stage one accessibility test did so because their home page lacked ‘visible focus indicators’. These highlight links, tabs and other key elements. Absence of these indicators means that keyboard only users cannot navigate the website, find content, or determine where they are on a page or application.

What’s more, 71% of sites tested were marked down for absence of ‘skip links’, mainly used by screen reader users for bypassing or ‘skipping’ over repetitive web page content. While this absence would fall foul of WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards, and would have failed in last year’s Better Connected test, DAC regard this absence as ‘inconvenient’ rather that ‘difficult’ in terms of completing a journey. Consequently absence of skip links is not sufficient on its own to constitute a task fail.

64% of sites tested were marked down on for lack of ‘meaningful links in context’. This impacts blind users who use screen reading software and need links to make sense when read out of context – which links like ‘click here’ or ‘more’ do not.

35% of sites tested were marked down on movement. This impacts cognitive impaired, dyslexic and low vision users, as well as blind users who use screen reading software. If there is movement of any kind on the page that lasts for more than five seconds then a user, including keyboard and mouse users, should be able to pause that movement. As with skip links, while absence of such tools would fall foul of WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards, DAC regard this as inconvenient rather than ‘difficult’ in terms of completing a journey and not sufficient on its own to constitute a task fail.

Other criteria where more than a third of sites tested were marked down (but not sufficiently to fail) included criterion 2: good heading structure (63%), criterion 8: appropriate text alternatives for images (39%), and criterion 9: sufficient colour contrast (49%). 36% of sites tested scored 7 on criterion 6, which requires clear labels and instructions for forms. This issue impacts blind users who use screen reading software.

 

Importance of accessibility

The accessibility of websites to people with disabilities, who account for around 15% of the UK population, is extremely important. It should be built-in to the design of websites and the third party systems they use (i.e. software that manage services people access via council websites, like library or planning or council tax management systems). All forms and documents presented via websites should be accessible too, and videos, imagery and elements of the website that move, should be presented in ways that accommodate disabled people.

Accessibility cannot be guaranteed by coders or third party site designers (although specifications for items they provide should require these to be accessible). Content editors need also to be aware of things they do that may introduce accessibility barriers, like adding images with no ‘alternative text’ or links like ‘click here’ that may not be meaningful when read out by a screen reader.

Maintaining the accessibility of a website requires knowledge and constant vigilance, since it is very easy to introduce accessibility problems with even simple updates. Automated testing for accessibility is unable to pick up some key barriers to accessibility.

Better Connected is determined to raise awareness of accessibility issues, and understanding of how to manage them, among those responsible for digital services within local authorities.

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