Everything on UK Web Accessibility Regulation  Compliance

What web accessibility laws exist in the UK and who do they apply to?

In the United Kingdom, ensuring your website is accessible to people with various disabilities is not just a best practice, but a legal requirement enforced under several key legislations. These laws are designed to prevent discrimination and ensure equal access to digital information and services for all individuals, particularly ‌members of various disability communities. As digital platforms increasingly become essential components of daily life, understanding these legal frameworks becomes crucial for all organizations operating within the UK.

The legal landscape of web accessibility in the UK primarily revolves around two significant pieces of legislation:

  1. The Equality Act of 2010, which provides a broad mandate against discrimination, including in the digital realm
  2. The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018, which specifically target public sector bodies, and set clear standards for websites and mobile applications to ensure they are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities

Each of these laws addresses different aspects of accessibility and applies to varying types of organizations, as we will explore in the sections that follow.

The Equality Act (2010)

The Equality Act 2010 is a cornerstone of UK legislation aimed at preventing discrimination and promoting equality across a broad spectrum of activities and services. It consolidates previous anti-discrimination laws into one comprehensive act that protects individuals from being discriminated against based on protected characteristics such as disability, race, gender, and other factors. This legislation applies universally to all service providers and employers, ensuring that equal treatment is embedded within all areas of public life.

The Equality Act 2010 explicitly requires all UK service providers, both public and private, to make their websites and mobile applications accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Who must comply with this law?

The Equality Act 2010 applies to all service providers operating within the UK. This encompasses a wide range of entities, including:

  • Public institutions: Government departments, local councils, and other public sector agencies
  • Private businesses: From large corporations to small enterprises across all sectors
  • Nonprofits: Including charities, foundations, and third-sector organizations
  • Educational entities: Schools, colleges, universities, and other educational institutions

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations (2018)

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 are a pivotal piece of legislation aimed specifically at increasing digital accessibility across public sector bodies within the UK. Enacted on September 23, 2018, these regulations require public-sector organizations to ensure that all their digital platforms, including websites and mobile applications, are accessible to people with disabilities. This law reinforces the commitment to removing barriers and making digital services inclusive and usable for all citizens, particularly those with disabilities.

Who must comply with this law?

Compliance with the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations is mandatory for:

  • Central government bodies: Including departments and their related organizations that provide services directly to the public
  • Local government bodies: This includes local councils and any other local government organizations involved in providing public services.
  • Some charities and NGOs, specifically those that are either financed mostly by public funding or provide services that are essential to the public or specifically intended for people with disabilities

To summarize: The Equality Act 2010 applies universally across all sectors, affecting any service provider operating within the UK, including public institutions, private businesses, nonprofits, and educational entities.

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018, on the other hand, specifically target public sector organizations, including central and local government bodies, as well as certain charities and NGOs that receive public funding or provide essential public services.

How do you comply with these laws?

Compliance with UK web accessibility laws involves adhering to established accessibility standards, known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

While the Equality Act 2010 does not specify WCAG as its standard for compliance, it mandates reasonable adjustments to make digital platforms accessible, indirectly aligning with WCAG principles.

Conversely, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 explicitly require conformance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards, setting a clear benchmark for public sector digital services.

Conforming to WCAG is critical for achieving compliance with these laws. Therefore, it is important to familiarize yourself with these guidelines.

What is WCAG?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the primary international standards organization for the internet. WCAG is designed to enhance web accessibility for a diverse range of people with disabilities, including those with vision, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities. Following these guidelines helps online content become accessible to everyone.

Despite being fairly lengthy and complex, WCAG is ultimately based on four guiding principles:

  • Perceivable: Website visitors must be able to perceive the content and information that’s presented on your website using one or more of their senses (i.e., sight, sound, and touch)
  • Operable: Website visitors must be able to control a website's UI elements regardless of their physical condition
  • Understandable: Website content should be presented in a simple, direct way. Website visitors shouldn't be misled or confused, including those with learning and attention disabilities
  • Robust: Websites must use clean, standard-compliant HTML and CSS and be compatible with assistive technologies

WCAG versions and conformance levels

WCAG has evolved through several versions, reflecting the advances in web technology and digital accessibility needs. These versions include:

  1. WCAG 2.0: Released in 2008, it introduced more contemporary guidelines
  2. WCAG 2.1: Released in 2018, it added criteria to improve accessibility for people with cognitive and mobile disabilities
  3. WCAG 2.2: The latest version, expected to be recommended soon, focuses on further improvements for users with cognitive and learning disabilities, as well as users of mobile devices

Each version of WCAG provides three levels of conformance:

  1. Level A: The minimum level of conformance, addressing the most basic web accessibility features
  2. Level AA: Deals with the biggest and most common barriers for people with disabilities
  3. Level AAA: The highest level of accessibility conformance, which may not be necessary for some types of web content

Bottom line: What version of WCAG should you conform to?

Under the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018, public sector bodies are mandated to conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. It is worth noting, however, that starting October 2024, relevant bodies will be expected to conform to WCAG 2.2 at Level AA.

In contrast, the Equality Act 2010 does not explicitly specify conformance to WCAG. However, it is considered best practice for all UK service providers, including those in the private sector, to align their websites and mobile applications with WCAG 2.1 Level AA.

What does conforming to WCAG 2.1 Level AA entail?

Conforming to WCAG 2.1 Level AA requires meeting specific technical and design criteria to ensure websites are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. Here are some key requirements you must implement:

  • Assistive technology compatibility: Ensure that your website works seamlessly with assistive technologies like screen readers, which are crucial for users with vision impairments
  • Keyboard navigation: Your website should be fully navigable using a keyboard alone, facilitating access for people with motor disabilities who cannot use a mouse
  • Text alternatives: Provide alt text for all meaningful images to convey the information or function represented by the image to people who cannot see them
  • Visual contrast: Maintain sufficient contrast between text and its background to ensure that text is readable for people with vision impairments
  • Text resizing: Text ‌should be able to be resized up to 200% without a loss of content or functionality
  • Text spacing adjustment: Ensure that website visitors can adjust text spacing without functionality loss, which is important for those with cognitive disabilities and those who need improved readability
  • Clear headings and labels: Use clear headings and labels to help all website visitors navigate and find content more easily
  • Accessibility of online documents: Make sure that documents such as PDFs and Word files are accessible. This entails properly tagging them, adding alternative text for meaningful images and charts, and striking proper color contrasts between text and its background, among other measures
  • Audio and video content: Provide captions and audio descriptions for video content, ensuring that those who cannot hear or see can still access the information conveyed by them

Note: The full list of action items required to reach WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance is significantly longer. You can press here for a more complete checklist.

Tips for conforming with WCAG and achieving compliance with relevant accessibility laws

Ensuring your website meets WCAG standards and complies with accessibility laws requires a methodical approach. Here are some effective strategies to help you achieve and maintain accessibility:

1. Conduct an accessibility audit:

Start by auditing your website to identify any current accessibility barriers. You can use an automated tool, such as accessScan, for quick audits, which provide an overview of accessibility issues.

For a more comprehensive inspection, you can also rely on web accessibility experts, like accessServices, who offer detailed insights and actionable recommendations.

2. Remediate accessibility issues

Once you’ve gained a clear understanding of the accessibility issues your website is suffering from, you will need to remediate them.

Addressing all the issues identified in your audit to ensure full WCAG conformance can be challenging.

This is especially true for ensuring complete compatibility with screen readers and supporting keyboard-only navigation, which are critical for people with vision and motor impairments. These adjustments require specialized technical knowledge and a keen and thorough understanding of WCAG.

Due to the complexity and potential costs involved, many website owners opt for comprehensive web accessibility solutions, such as accessWidget.

accessWidget can automatically audit and remediate your website’s code, addressing many common accessibility problems efficiently, and help maintain ongoing conformance with WCAG standards.

3. Pay attention to other digital assets

To ensure full WCAG conformance, every element hosted on your website needs to be accessible. This includes not only the web pages themselves but also all digital files such as PDFs, Word documents, videos, and audio files like podcasts. Addressing accessibility issues in these online documents and media assets can be challenging, especially when dealing with lengthy, complex documents.

For this reason, it is often practical to rely on web accessibility expert service providers, like accessServices, who are well-versed in the intricacies of digital accessibility. These professionals are equipped to handle complicated remediation tasks efficiently and cost-effectively, ensuring that your entire digital presence conforms with accessibility standards.

4. Implement accessibility measures during the development phase

For many organizations that maintain high-performing websites, finding a solution that does not alter the existing source code is ideal. However, incorporating accessibility right at the initial stages of website development is also a critical strategy. accessFlow offers a development accessibility solution that integrates seamlessly into the development process.

Using AI technology, accessFlow generates copy-and-paste code that developers can easily implement, ensuring that accessibility is built into the website from the ground up. This integration not only simplifies compliance but also ensures that all new features and updates maintain high accessibility standards as they are rolled out, fitting smoothly into continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines.

The consequences of failing to comply with these laws

Failing to comply with UK web accessibility laws can lead to significant legal and financial consequences. Individuals who experience discrimination due to inaccessible websites can initiate legal actions, potentially resulting in costly compensation orders and mandatory changes to make websites accessible. Additionally, public sector organizations could face enforcement actions from regulatory bodies, including potential financial penalties.

While specific monetary fines are not detailed in the Equality Act, the cost of legal fees, compensation, and corrective measures can be substantial, often running into tens of thousands of pounds, depending on the severity and scope of the accessibility failures.

The importance of achieving web accessibility compliance

Ensuring your website complies with these web accessibility laws is not just a legal obligation; it is also a moral imperative that benefits a significant section of the UK population. There are more than 16 million people in the UK living with some form of disability. This represents about 21% of the entire population. Members of the various disability communities deserve the opportunities to engage with online environments extended to everyone else.

It is important to note that people with disabilities command a collective spending power in the hundreds of billions of pounds. By creating inclusive digital spaces, you will allow people with disabilities and their family members to spend their hard-earned income on your goods and services.

Finally, failing to fully adhere to these laws will be rightfully viewed as an act of discrimination against people with disabilities. This can incur significant reputational damage that can often lead to negative business outcomes.