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UK regulations on public sector web and app accessibility outlined

Websites and mobile apps operated by public bodies in the UK will be subject to new accessibility requirements under new laws under consultation.03 May 2018

The UK government has opened a consultation on draft new regulations that are designed to implement an EU directive on accessibility that was finalised in 2016.

The Directive on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies requires public sector bodies in the EU to "make their websites and mobile applications more accessible by making them perceivable, operable, understandable and robust".

Public sector bodies can adhere to those requirements by implementing measures in line with technical standards, and must publish an accessibility statement explaining, among other things, what parts of their websites or apps are not accessible and why. They are only required to adhere to the new requirements "to the extent that those requirements do not impose a disproportionate burden" on them.

Draft legislation, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018, to implement the Directive was published by the Government Digital Service in the UK earlier this week, along with an associated consultation paper.

"The Directive builds on existing UK legislation and commitments such as the Equality Act 2010, which includes a duty on service providers to make reasonable adjustments for persons with disabilities (and other protected characteristics) when providing services and exercising public functions," the government said.

In its consultation paper, the government explained that a raft of content will not fall within the scope of the new rules, including live video and third party content that is not under the control of the public sector body concerned.

Documents that are not intended primarily for use on the web and that are included in web pages, such as PDFs and Microsoft Office documents, published before 23 September 2018 will also be exempt, along with "pre-recorded media, such as videos and podcasts, published before 23 September 2020", the government said.

The government also provided guidance on how public bodies will be able to determine where they will not have to meet the new requirements because doing so would 'impose a disproportionate burden' on them.

It said: "Each public sector body must carry out the initial assessment of the extent to which the accessibility requirements cannot be met, taking into account relevant circumstances such as size, resources and nature of the body concerned; and the estimated costs and benefits for the public sector body in relation to the estimated benefits for people with disabilities."

"Lack of priority, time or knowledge are not relevant considerations for the purposes of this assessment. If, on the basis of its assessment, a public body decides it would impose a disproportionate burden to meet the accessibility requirements, it must explain this in its web accessibility statement – including an explanation of what parts of the accessibility requirements could not be complied with, and any accessible alternatives provided for," it said.

The regulations are scheduled to come into force on 23 September this year, which is the date on which the EU directive must be implemented into national law. However, the regulations would not need to be immediately complied with.

Public sector bodies will have until 23 September 2019 to apply the new accessibility standards to new websites, while a deadline of 23 September 2020 will apply to update public sector websites created before 23 September this year in line with the new requirements. Public sector apps will have to conform to the new requirements from 23 June 2021.

Under the EU rules, public service broadcasters, such as the BBC and its subsidiaries, are exempt from the new requirements. Non-governmental organisations that don’t provide services that are essential to the public, or services that specifically address the needs of, or are meant for, people with disabilities, are also exempt.

The government confirmed that it intends to also apply an exemption to schools, nurseries and kindergartens. The exemption will apply to those organisations except in the case of "content which relates to ‘essential online administrative functions’ (and only if that content isn’t provided in an accessible way on another website)", it said.

The Government Digital Service will "monitor compliance with the accessibility requirements" and is in discussion over the potential to use "existing equality structures and legislation for enforcement of these obligations where possible", according to the consultation paper.