When new legal regulations on website accessibility come into force later this month, the content you create for online channels will need a rethink
by Karen Pagett
Four out of ten local council homepages were still failing basic accessibility tests at the start of July, just three months ahead of an important legal deadline, according to a report on the new web accessibility regulations from SOCITM (the network for public sector professionals leading on modernisation).
On 23 September, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 come into force. If you work in public sector communications, you might think these new guidelines have little to do with your job. Surely the Web Team has this?
Well, hopefully they do have all the techie bits in hand – the auditing, the testing, the mandatory accessibility statement, and planning for any necessary fixes ahead of the deadline. But these new rules could (and should) have an impact on how you create any digital content going forward, depending on how mindful you’ve been in the past.
Using the new guidance will make sure your online comms content is inclusive for people with a range of disabilities. This will not only help your Web Team with their efforts towards meeting the new standards (and give you their undying love and admiration?) but sharpen it up in general.
Four new principles and their impact on content
An estimated (at least) one in five people has difficulty getting the information they need from digital communications for a variety of reasons, according to the Government’s own accessibility guidance for public sector websites. This guidance is well worth a detailed read, by the way.
There is a whole bunch of specific requirements that public sector websites need to meet set out in the new accessibility regulations, which apply to most public sector websites and intranets – including local and national government and NHS. Content on intranets published before 23 September 2019 is exempt unless you make a major revision after that date. Public-sector-published mobile apps will need to comply by 23 June next year.
A global community of tech and accessibility experts came up with the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.1 design principles on which the rules are based. Intended as a single shared standard for web content accessibility, they are explained in glorious technical detail on the official website for the WCAG 2.1.
The Government Digital Service (which will monitor public sector bodies’ compliance on behalf of the Cabinet Office) has provided a simpler breakdown of the WCAG guidance. And public sector web teams have been sharing their WCAG adventures in practical blogs.
But the four principles on which the guidance is based are deliberately simple. They are designed to focus the minds of everyone involved with putting stuff online – both techies and creatives – on considering the different ways people need to interact with web content i.e. they don’t just read it on screen. They might use a keyboard instead of a mouse, for example. People might hear the content read out loud or use voice technology to navigate.
The principles state your website must be: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. The latter, which is all about making sure content can be interpreted reliably by browsers and assistive technologies, is very much the technician’s bag. But there is much to consider for creative comms folk in the other three accessibility categories.
Perceivable: can people use your website with the senses available to them?
These are all those practical things we know help people with hearing or vision loss that should be routine when creating online content but can get overlooked – like alt text for images and transcripts for audio and video.
Operable: can people find and use your content, regardless of how they access it?
This is largely about championing headings, labels and links written in straightforward, descriptive language so a screen reader would easily make sense of navigating through it.
Understandable: can people comprehend your content?
This is the principle over which content writers have the most control. It is all about using plain English and keeping it simple with short sentences, words and phrases most people recognise and explanations of all but the most obvious (i.e. UK or VAT) abbreviations and acronyms.
The Government’s website, with content provided by the Government Digital Service which will have responsibility for overseeing compliance with the regulations, has a comprehensive section on web content design that is particularly useful for comms folk.
Below is a short five-point “check” list to get you thinking more about creating accessible content.
“Click below” or “click this button” rely on someone being able to see the screen. Imagine the instructions are being read out and rephrase accordingly.
People using screen readers sometimes scan the links on a webpage out of context. So, write a link that makes sense in isolation and tells people where it is taking them. Again, “click here” doesn’t do the job.
Webpages need distinctive but simple titles that say what they do on the tin so they can be found easily in search. Being too generic doesn’t help: “How to get here” in a title begs the question “where?”. Title duplication across a website is confusing.
Illustrations, photos, charts and diagrams need accompanying alt text or copy in the body text to describe them so people can access this information even if they cannot see the image. No images should contain text as screen readers won’t relay it. Logos are OK. Also check Government guidance on accessibility relating to PDFs and other attachments.
Check: video and audio
Check that if you only follow video content as audio, you still know about all the things going on through it – including visuals like graphs. And check the same if you only follow audio content visually, with captions explaining things like sound effects as well as speech.
While you are on a roll with web content accessibility, why not take a look at how your social media stacks up too? The Government Communication Service has produced an in-depth guide to creating accessible social posts including advice on length, structure, emojis, hashtags and gifs.
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Image via Kheel Centre