Brexit: bad for the future of digital accessibility?

Usability | March 2017

Brexit eggshells with Union Jack & Eu flagsEU Directive will no longer apply to UK, post-Brexit

For Emanuela Gorla and our other UX and accessibility consultants, Brexit is a disappointment. Here Emanuela comments more about the recently published Directive (EU) 2016/2102, and why she sees its non-applicability to the UK post-Brexit, as a blow to the future of digital accessibility.

While there are limitations to any mandate that sets deadlines, I believe the recent EU directive has the potential to greatly improve the accessibility of websites and mobiles apps across Europe.

Background

On 26 October 2016 the European Union published a long-awaited directive. This requires all Member States to, ‘ensure that public sector bodies take the necessary measures to make their websites and mobile applications more accessible by making them perceivable, operable, understandable and robust’.

So far, so normal; websites and apps around the world have always been required to be accessible by legislation such as Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, Canada’s Human Rights Act, Italy’s Legge Stanca, and the UK’s Equality Act. Even in countries where there is no specific law, the accessibility of online services is covered by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

So what’s new?

What’s different about the EU directive is that it explicitly requires the Member States to monitor the accessibility of the websites and apps of their public sector bodies.

By 22 September 2018, Member States must inform the Commission which body will monitor compliance, and by 22 December 2018, the Commission will establish a monitoring methodology for Member States. This idea is to motivate public sector organisations to improve online service accessibility.

Why deadlines aren’t always a good thing

coloured blocks representing digital accessibility mapI’ve spent most of my career as an accessibility consultant helping clients meet very challenging (often unrealistic) goals set by new legislation. In Australia, I worked with many government departments that, after the release of the National Transition Strategy in 2010, had four years to meet WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) Level AA compliance.

More recently, I have helped several airlines around the world improve the accessibility of their websites after the US DOT (Department of Transportation) published a mandate requiring all airlines flying to and from the USA to make their online services accessible.

These experiences have shown me how overwhelming organisational accessibility challenges can be, when timeframes are short and support is limited. This is particularly true for government websites hosting a large amount of legacy content: it can be extremely difficult and expensive to make this accessible.

Accessibility is about human beings, not tick boxes

Another general drawback of legislation is that by defining compliance via guidelines or standards, it encourages a focus on the technical aspects of accessibility at the expense of the more important human aspects. This can reduce accessibility to little more than a list of tick boxes.

Positive longer-term impacts of accessibility legislation

Of course, there are upsides to accessibility legislation, too. Even when new requirements are not met by the set deadlines, they generally result in organisations improving accessibility in the longer-term.

birds moving between lines as metaphor for changeOrganisations that had never even considered accessibility learn of its importance and benefits. Teams of developers, designers and content authors acquire new skills and knowledge that will impact their work for the coming years. Templates and tools, such as front-end libraries and frameworks and CMS (Content Management System), are replaced with more accessible ones. These changes all have positive impacts.

I still clearly remember a training attendee looking at me in surprise, when I mentioned that I had been working in the field for 10 years. Like many others, she thought that digital accessibility was a completely new concept and requirement; she would still be unaware of its importance today, had the DOT not published its 2013 mandate.

A more accessible EU… but what about the UK?

Once in place, I expect the EU directive to lead to improvements in the accessibility of online public services across Europe. But what of the UK?

Due to Brexit, the UK could miss out on the long-term benefits of this directive – ultimately becoming less competitive, and falling behind EU countries in the provision of accessible services. Let’s hope the UK government and those appointed to look after the accessibility of gov.uk websites, make sure this doesn’t happen!