Government research conducted over the past two years found that about 99% of public sector websites contained accessibility issues representing a potential problem for users with physical or cognitive impairments – as well as a breach of regulatory requirements.
Regulations introduced in 2018 require all newly developed public sector websites to meet the demands of version 2.1 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – a set of internationally agreed online accessibility standards. Pre-existing sites were given until September 2020 to do so.
Between February 2020 and November 2021, a government research exercise monitored levels of compliance with the new rules via tests run on 593 websites.
Only eight were found not to have any accessibility issues at all and were, thus, fully compliant. This equates to just 1.35% of sites.
A report recently published by the Central Digital and Data Office said “the main issues found [were] a lack of visible focus, which affects keyboard users, low colour contrast, which affects visually impaired users, and parsing issues, that affects users of assistive technology”.
A number of sites also used PDF documents rather than publishing information in HTML format.
“PDFs are generally less accessible than web pages, and often do not contain information that helps assistive technology interpret the content,” the CDDO said.
The research data indicates that sites had an average of about six accessibility problems each – although a quarter had nine or more issues, including one with 26 shortcomings.
Once organisations had been informed of these issues, 59% had fixed them – or at least set out a “short-term roadmap” to doing so – within 12 weeks.
The report said: “We usually find at least one accessibility issue through automated tests and an issue through manual testing. There is also normally an issue with the PDF that is tested, even though the checks are limited to technical tests, such as inclusion of a PDF title and language.
"Many issues are found across all pages, as they are part of the template used throughout the site. Homepages often have extra elements that may cause accessibility problems, such as more use of images that contain text, or carousels. Cookie notices, or other elements that have been added to the page, can also generate errors. Some sites use a third-party provider for forms, and may not use the same template as the rest of the site. These can present different accessibility issues, some of which are seen across all sites that use the same third-party provider.”
In addition to meeting the standards laid out in WCAG 2.1, public sector websites are now also required by law to include an accessibility statement. While CDDO’s initial investigations found that 90% of sites had included such a statement, only one in fourteen of these contained all the required information.
Once the Cabinet Office agency had completed its work, 80% of organisations surveyed had published on their site a fully compliant statement – although the remaining 20% still included 0.5% whose site had no statement whatsoever.
The CDDO was set up last year and has taken on the remit for overseeing the accessibility of public sector online services; the relevant team and responsibilities were moved over from the Government Digital Service.
The research conducted by the agency “focused on larger public sector organisations… especially central government… larger local government and central health organisations”.
The CDDO said that it had encountered “mixed reactions [from] organisations receiving our accessibility audit reports”.
“Some organisations are grateful to have a starting point and welcome our audits, which can push website accessibility to be prioritised, but some organisations do not respond positively and this can sometimes be the first they are hearing of the accessibility regulations,” it said.
“The majority of organisations acknowledge our report within a month, but some organisations will not reply to us until after we inform them we are sending their information to the enforcement bodies.
“A minority – roughly 20% – never respond to our report or subsequent emails. We get better response rates when there is a direct email address on an accessibility statement or contact page rather than when relying on website contact forms. Willingness and cooperation is usually dependent on organisation size and resources available. The pandemic has inevitably affected this.”
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared