Access All Areas: Everything You Need to Know About the New Website Accessibility Legislation

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Attention all public sector bodies!

On the 23rd September 2018, new regulations came into force requiring all public sector organisations to make their websites and apps more accessible. These are new legal requirements that absolutely must be met by a certain deadline, so we’re here to make sure you’ve got all the information you need to comply.

What is Accessibility?

Put simply, website accessibility is everything that makes a website easy to use and functional for absolutely all users, but most importantly those with disabilities. This is especially essential for public sector websites, as the people who use these sites the most are also quite often those who struggle the most. Around 1 in 5 people in the UK have a disability of some description, and website accessibility must therefore take into account the needs of those who struggle with:

  • Visual and hearing impairments
  • Motor difficulties
  • Learning difficulties and cognitive impairments

Content must be well considered to ensure it is clear and simple enough for everyday users to read without needing to adapt it, while including features to support those who do. For example, a user with sight impairments may need to use screen reading software, which will read text
content out loud, so the website content needs to be compatible with this type of software.

What are the new regulations?

As of the 23rd September, all public sector websites need to comply with the WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines. WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and AA simply refers to the conformance level, of which there are three (A, AA and AAA). As you would expect, A is the most basic level of conformance, and AAA is the most advanced, although advanced levels are not legally required site-wide due to these additional features not being suitable for all types of content.

The aim of these regulations is to create a shared standard of accessibility that meets the needs of all users, organisations and governments across the world. WCAG 2.1, which builds upon previous 2.0 and 1.0 models, is made up of several layers of guidance including four basic principles that form the foundation of website accessibility:

Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust

The further layers include guidelines for basic goals, testable success criteria and a collection of sufficient techniques, advisory techniques and common failures. These layers of guidance will help public bodies ensure their websites comply with the new regulations by the new implemented deadline. A full list of the guidelines can be found here.
When is the deadline for compliance?

The deadline for compliance varies depending on several factors including whether you have:

  • A new website (launched on or after 23rd September 2018)
  • An existing website
  • An app

New Websites

All newly built public sector websites must be WCAG 2.1 AA compliant by 23rd September 2019. This relatively short deadline reflects the fact that new, modern website builds and management software are already set up to meet accessibility requirements. This should mean that any further implementations and adaptations will be minimal.

Existing Websites

Older, existing websites need to meet the accessibility requirements by 23rd September 2020. If your organisation has an existing website, the recommendation is to act now to ensure that any new content is accessible, which will prevent you needing to go back and amend it. You should also begin drafting a plan for amending older areas of the website and run an audit to identify weak areas.


The deadline for app accessibility compliance is 23rd June 2021. This gives an extended period of time to fix and adapt mobile apps in addition to websites.

Public sector bodies must also:

  • Publish an accessibility statement for all websites and mobile apps (mobile apps require a separate statement to websites) – These statements must include details of content that doesn’t meet accessibility standards and why
  • Provide an accessible alternative (if requested) within a reasonable time for any existing content that doesn’t meet the appropriate accessibility standards

The government will be monitoring and testing all public sector websites and apps to ensure relevant criteria are being met.

Who does this affect?

These new regulations are aimed solely at any websites and apps run and owned by public sector bodies. These include:

  • Central government
  • Regional and local government, councils, Police and NHS
  • Some charities and other non-government organisations

There are, however, some types of organisations that are exempt from the regulations. These include:

  • Non-government organisations like charities – except those that provide services that are essential to the public or services specifically aimed at disabled people
  • Schools or nurseries – except for any website content the public needs in order to use essential services
  • Public sector broadcasters and subsidiaries

Some types of content are also exempt from the regulations. While all website-published content including PDFs and even Microsoft Office files should be made accessible, there are some circumstances under which this isn’t required.

For example, if your content was both published before 23rd of September 2018 and isn’t essential for services your organisation provides, this content will not legally be required to conform with the regulations.

Other types of content are also exempt from the regulations due to generally being unsuitable for any necessary amends. These include:

  • Pre-recorded audio or video content published before 23rd September 2020
  • Live audio and video content
  • Maps – unless your map is intended to assist users in finding a service, in which case an alternative accessible form of direction must be provided
  • Heritage content such as scanned manuscripts
  • Third party-provided standard content you did not pay for or develop yourself e.g. social media sharing buttons

All content on organisation intranets and extranets published before 23rd September 2019 is also exempt, unless your organisation makes a major revision to the content after that date. Any archived websites are also exempt, providing they are not needed for services your organisation provides.

Why does Accessibility matter?

Website accessibility is hugely important across all industries, but none more so than the public sector. Many people will not have a choice when using the highly useful and important services that public sector websites and apps provide, so it is essential they work for every individual’s needs. If they don’t, entire sections of the population will find themselves unfairly unable to access the day-to-day services they require.

And aside from providing fair and equal opportunities for content access, having a well-built, accessible website carries plenty of advantages for the website itself. Here are just a few of the best advantages of accessibility for both public sector and non public sector websites:

It helps with SEO and performance: Websites that have been built with accessibility in mind often run faster and perform better, providing a superior user experience and positively affecting rankings in search engines.

It builds stronger public relations: Having an easily accessible website that takes into account everybody’s needs will have a positive effect on your organisation’s reputation, portraying you as a considerate, helpful service that everyone can rely on.

It directly saves on costs: Having a fully accessible website that’s future-proofed for new technology and runs smoothly across multiple devices can lead to direct savings on everything from site maintenance to server costs and tech upgrades.

It increases market share and audience reach: An accessible website is easier for users to find, meaning your website has the potential to become much more visible compared with other sites in the same industry. This increase in visibility means your website will reach a wider audience, who in turn will find your website easier to use than other, less accessible sites.

Some Accessibility ‘Quick Wins’

If your organisation doesn’t quite have the budget and time to go ‘all out’ on the accessibility revamp, fear not. There are luckily a few quick wins to help get your website up to scratch and compliant with the regulations without having to spend months of time and bags of cash.

1. Make a roadmap

If you’re concerned about time scales and the extent of the work to be done, start by making a roadmap of planned activity. This will help you prioritise the elements of work that absolutely must be done in order to comply with the new regulations, saving the less urgent actions for later.

2. Check your contrast

A website with low contrast design is an accessibility nightmare; and not just for those with visual impairments. Text on a low-contrast website will appear almost to merge with the background colour of the page, making it almost impossible to read even for a person with relatively good vision. Website content that is hard to read is next to useless, and could cause a huge chunk of your visitors to abandon your site for good. Luckily, this is a super quick and easy thing to check and fix. Simply by darkening backgrounds and boxes and/or lightening or darkening the colour of your text, you can make your website content instantly easier and more enjoyable to read.

3. Organise important content

Identifying the most important information on your website and organising it in a clear hierarchical system is a great place to begin when quickly improving accessibility. Any visitor should be able to identify the key areas of a website within 10 seconds; if they can’t then your site isn’t as accessible as it should be. Start by auditing and tidying up your website navigation menu, making sure there is a logical and easy process with minimal steps for your visitors to get from start to finish.

Then, page-by-page, work through and make sure all information is in a logical order, with the most important at the top and working your way down. This will help all users find and understand your content more easily, while also helping assistance software navigate your content for those with impairments.

4. Provide captions and transcripts

Video and podcast content has taken off in a big way in recent years, and this type of content is proven to have unrivalled benefits for both website and user. However, those with visual and hearing impairments will, of course, struggle to use this content, therefore risking the exclusion of such users. A great quick-win here is to ensure that all existing and future audio and video content is accompanied by captions and/or transcripts. Both of these can then be read by screen-reading software and provide all the information that deaf, blind or partially sighted people would otherwise be missing out on.

5. Use Alt text and descriptions

Similar to your audio and video content, all imagery should be accompanied by descriptive text to improve accessibility and ensure no users are left out. This includes creating descriptive file names e.g. ‘Boy-kicking-football-in-the-park.jpg’ as opposed to ‘IMG_0831.jpg’, as well as providing more descriptive Alt text to thoroughly describe what is happening in the images on your website. This information can be picked up by accessibility software, helping visually impaired users understand what is on your site.

Alt text is quick and easy to add; simply go to where your images are hosted on your site (i.e. WordPress Media Library) and fill in the appropriate boxes. This is general website best practice and also boosts your SEO performance, so there’s another plus.

6. Get help

If a third party designer or developer created your website, your best course of action would be to sit down with them to plan and tackle any fixes that need making. They will know your website back to front and will be able to make sure your site is entirely compliant with the new regulations. If, on the other hand, you created your website in-house but you’re not sure where to begin with all these accessibility changes, don’t panic. There are experts out there who can help guide you through the process and implement all the changes that need making; all you have to do is ask.

If you’re on the lookout for expert designers and developers who can whip your website into shape in time for the 2019 deadline, you’ve come to the right place. Get in touch with the Design by Day team at and tell us about your site; our door is always open.