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Local government must embrace accessible-first web design

An image of a woman sitting at a Mac and coding

It wasn’t that long ago that desktop design was everything in local government. There was a tipping point when, even if not acted upon immediately, web teams recognised that if they wanted, or needed, users to carry out the majority of their council interactions and transactions online, they had to become mobile-first by design.

That shift in mindset is now needed to ensure local government serves everyone, regardless of ability level or disability. Local government needs accessible-first design. One in five people in the UK has a disability, yet 40% of council websites are inaccessible according to Socitm.

As council budgets are squeezed – sometimes to breaking point – council websites can be the only way of accessing even the most essential services quickly and efficiently. It is, of course, morally right that everyone has equal access to digital services, but it is also the law.

New accessibility legislation comes into force today that needs to be acted upon. All public bodies – including all areas of government – need to conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1.

The changes fall under the Web Accessibility Initiative’s four principles: perceivability; operability; understandability; and robustness.

Content must work with assistive technologies such as screen readers, which are used by those with visual impairments (providing information about text, icons, and menus). It must be easily seen and heard by users.

What does this mean practically? Well, it’s no longer acceptable for PDF forms and documents to be inaccessible to those with visual impairments, for starters.

Content needs to have ‘skip links’, which are used by screen readers to leapfrog repetitive content – 70% of UK council websites do not currently have these links. Navigation needs to be simple and users must be given enough time to read content that’s easily understood and operates “in predictable ways”. That includes ensuring complete functionality is available via keyboard only.

The new guidelines are also clear that users should be helped in avoiding and correcting mistakes. Guidance on avoiding adverse reactions to content and mitigating against physical reactions and seizures has also been updated.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission will ultimately be responsible for enforcing the regulation, measuring accessibility on three levels of compliance: A; AA; and AAA. Every public sector site will need to meet a minimum of AA. Each site is required to publish an accessibility statement that outlines the organisation’s commitment to accessibility and the steps taken.

Web accessibility is not just about regulatory compliance; an accessible first design approach is a mindset.

With mobile-first, once the site is coded into a Content Management System (CMS), content authors can upload their content to templates and generally don’t have too much to worry about. However, with accessibility-first everyone needs to have awareness and write with accessibility front of mind. That may mean writing content in plain English, using headings to assist screen readers, or writing effective alt-text.

Whereas design and accessibility have been viewed as separate in the past – attitudes are changing. There is no reason that accessible sites cannot be beautifully designed. There are no excuses left; changes need to be made.

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