The web accessibility regulations for public sector bodies are now in force. FE and HE institutions must:
- Ensure that their website content meets internationally recognised accessibility standards (WCAG 2.1 AA)
- Publish a compliant accessibility statement in line with the Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO) model statement
“Most higher and further education providers are considered to be in scope for the regulations, due to their dependence on government funding”
Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO) guidance
Public sector bodies must comply with the 'accessibility requirement' which means the requirement to make a website or mobile application accessible in line with the standards laid out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 AA.
Publishing the accessibility statement involves providing details of any accessibility problems for a user and describing how you are working to resolve these problems.
If you think your university or college doesn’t meet the definition of a public sector body and so may not need to comply – you should take legal advice to clarify this.
Which education institutions do the regulations cover?
Colleges and universities are within the scope of the regulations as they provide services essential to the public and specifically address the needs of people with disabilities.
The UK government published a short summary of the regulations and how they affect education organisations. There are also links to more resources, including more detailed guidance and the CDDO's own guidance on why accessibility matters and who the regulations apply to.
The regulations provide for monitoring by the CDDO who are part of the Cabinet Office. CDDO evaluate the accessibility of a website or mobile app against W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. How they test is explained in their guidance Accessibility monitoring.
The regulations don’t distinguish between the various types of digital estate. They apply to all public sector websites and mobile applications, regardless of the source of the web page. However, there are some types of content that aren’t covered. You’ll find these in regulation 4(2).
Intranets, virtual learning environments (VLE), internal applications (e.g., HR or Finance platforms), mobile applications, and the active content on each of them, all fall within scope.
We believe that a web application running in website browsers is also covered by the accessibility regulations because it can be classified as a dynamic website, with user interactions and input responsible for running the page.
While the term ‘website’ isn’t defined in the regulations themselves, it essentially means a set of related web pages located under a single domain name, typically produced by a single person or organisation.
A web page is any content encoded in a hypertext formatted document (eg HTML). A web page regroups the web assets that are needed to convey an editorial message and the means to display it correctly.
Web pages can be static (typically having a unique URL for each page) or dynamic (ie it’s assembled at the time the user asks for it, so the same URL may show different content at different times or locations, and for different users).
The term ‘website’ in this context covers all systems delivered through a browser (such as library and accommodation systems) unless they’re exempt under regulation 4(2).
What about your commercial activities?
Commercial activities that have their own legal identity and operate outside the institution’s control may fall outside the definition of 'public sector body' and won’t be within the scope of the regulations as long the institution hasn’t funded, developed or controlled the content. Otherwise, the regulations will apply.
What if it’s too difficult or costly to comply?
Regulation 7 removes the obligation to comply with the accessibility requirement if doing so would impose a disproportionate burden.
To claim that this is the case, you must carry out an assessment, weighing the burden placed upon the university or college against the benefits of making the website and content accessible. The assessment must be explained in the accessibility statement that you must provide for each website or mobile application – and you will have to provide accessible alternatives where appropriate.
Lack of time or knowledge, or not giving accessibility priority, should not be considerations in the assessment.
Here’s an example:
College A’s VLE has learning materials from previous years that don’t meet accessibility standards and, although current accessible materials are available, learners sometimes use the legacy materials for revision.
College A should consider how much users with a disability would benefit from accessing the legacy content and weigh this benefit against the costs of making the changes, taking into account the resources available to the institution.
Depending on the circumstances, where it’s straightforward to make legacy website materials accessible it should be done. It may be harder to justify using a large proportion of available budget to update more complex materials such as graphs and diagrams, so it may be reasonable to delay – but remember that things change. What may be a justifiable disproportionate burden at one point in time probably won’t be going forward as your institution makes progress with compliance you will need to review the disproportionate burden assessment.
The regulations don’t state that disproportionate burden assessments must be in writing, but this information could be requested under a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request so it’s good practice to record any assessment in writing.
The CDDO provides guidance about what to consider when making an assessment for disproportionate burden.
Remember, even if some fixes are judged to be a disproportionate burden you will still have to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities when they’re needed.
The cautious and recommended approach is to ensure compliance with the regulations when making any amendments to older websites or mobile applications.
You’re making a copy of a previous year’s VLE as a basis for this year’s VLE, and it contains 99% of the same content. Do the accessibility regulations apply?
If the VLE (intranet) was published before 23 September 2019 the regulations are unlikely to apply to the content until the website undergoes a more substantial revision, but all substantial new code or new sections/subdomains would need to be compliant. All websites published and new documents uploaded after 23 September 2019 need to meet the accessibility requirement.
The regulations aim to make websites and mobile applications more accessible to users. Rather than revising content without making it accessible institutions should take the opportunity to assess and update the accessibility of learning materials when courses are being updated.
One of your lecturers uploads an occasional new document to a VLE but no change is made to the look and feel of the website. Do the new accessibility regulations apply?
Under normal circumstances any office file formats are included within the scope of the regulations as long as they have been published on or after 23 September 2018.
However, as in the last example, where a VLE is considered to be an extranet or intranet under the regulations any content on the VLE before 23 September 2019 doesn’t have to be compliant with the regulations until the VLE undergoes a substantial revision. It is unlikely that uploading an occasional new document to the VLE would be considered to be a substantial revision.
Nevertheless, where small numbers of single changes are made and documents are uploaded this can add up to substantial change at some point. Keep the changes to the VLE under review and make a judgment based on the circumstances of each case about when substantial revision has taken place. At this point the entire intranet or VLE must be updated to meet accessibility standards.
Similarly, changing the theme or altering the look and feel of a website can amount to substantial change at some point even if the content hasn’t changed. If an institution makes substantial changes to the code, for example to create new features, or if it creates a subdomain with its own distinct codebase, these will need to be fully accessible from 23 September 2019 (the same deadline as for new websites).
If your intranet/extranet underwent a substantial revision between 23 September 2018 and 23 September 2019 would the new accessibility regulations apply?
The content of extranets and intranets published before 23 September 2019 falls within the partially excepted criteria under Regulation 4(2) and therefore you wouldn’t be required to comply with the regulations until the website undergoes a substantial revision.
‘Active administrative processes’
The regulations don’t apply to office file formats published on websites before 23 September 2018 unless your university or college needs them for ‘active administrative processes’.
What’s an active administrative process?
The phrase isn’t defined or explained in the regulations or guidance, so the cautious, good practice approach is to ensure that any office file format documents that are used to engage with learners or others meet the accessibility requirement.
It is likely that all non-archival content used in teaching and learning needs to meet the accessibility requirements
And remember that all office file formats published on websites after 23 September 2018 must meet the accessibility requirements in any case. Content of intranets and VLEs published before 23 September 2019 don’t need to be made accessible until such websites undergo a substantial revision (as explained in the previous section).
Does one size fit all?
The regulations require you to publish an accessibility statement. The statement should include details of any accessibility problems for a user and should describe how you are working to resolve these problems.
There is mandatory wording that must be used in line with the Model accessibility statement as provided by the CDDO.
One accessibility statement could be sufficient for more than one platform. However, where accessibility differs from one of your institution’s platforms to another, you must provide specific accessibility information to tell users about those differences.
Good practice would be to carry out a separate assessment in each case and review them all once a year.
The aim of the accessibility statement is to ensure that users are aware of the parts of the website that are not accessible and to assess the offered alternatives. Guidance issued by the CDDO says that it is good practice if the statement is published on the home page of the website, which members of the public will reach in the first instance. Access to this statement should then be available via a clear, easily noticed link from every other page on the website.
When it comes to VLEs the regulations are silent about how the accessibility statement will apply. However, it would be logical for the statement to be viewable on the login page on the institution's public-facing website, and available to users before they sign in to a VLE.
Regulation 4 (3) (b) states that extranets and intranets are websites that are only available for a closed group of people and not to the general public. VLE content published before 23 September 2019 will not be required to be compliant with the regulations until such time as the VLE undergoes a substantial revision. An explanation of this should be included in the accessibility statement.
For more information, take a look at the CDDO guidance on making your website or app accessible and publishing an accessibility statement.
Procurement – third party content
What about content you buy in?
The regulations place the legal obligation of compliance on the public sector body.
If you haven’t funded or developed the third-part content, and you don’t control it, you’re exempt from this obligation. But if you’ve made decisions about it, for example by commissioning or specifying it, the content will come within the scope of the regulations.
The CDDO has said that buying or licensing a third-party product could be considered to be funding the product and this would oblige you to meet the accessibility requirements for those materials – from e-books and e-journals to HR systems – by working with the supplier as necessary to achieve compliance.
Alternatively, you might need to source an equivalent accessible alternative but if none is available, you’d need to explain this in the accessibility statement and justify it under ‘disproportionate burden’. In this case it would be good practice to provide workarounds while urging the provider to make their product accessible in the procurement process.
For outsourced websites or mobile applications and services with third-party content that your institution develops, controls and/or funds you’ll need to work with the service provider to ensure compliance.
Even if content is not caught by the new accessibility regulations you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. We recommend that you work with all third-party suppliers to ensure that products and services that you provide to users meet accessibility standards.
Find out more about how the accessibility regulations apply to third-party content.
Although the regulations don’t require you to have a contract with suppliers when you procure web content, they do require you to work with them to make sure their content or mobile applications are compliant so it makes sense to follow government guidance on procuring technology when you renew your supplier agreement:
The UK government’s technology code of practice tells you what you need to know.
Captioning/transcribing video resources
When publishing video, one of the ways to make it accessible is to include captions. Captions that are accurate are compliant. Captions that have not been checked and that contain mistakes are not.
The regulations apply only to pre-recorded time-based media published after 23 September 2020.
Responsibility lies with the public sector body as a whole. In effect, this is the senior responsible officer, or the executive leadership team. This is why leadership buy-in and a cross-organisational approach is so important.
Some accessibility tools, such as automatic speech recognition, have variable success rates. Being unable to check and correct captions on all video should not prevent you captioning as much video as possible. Providing captions as accurately as possible remains the legal obligation.
The best way forward is to be transparent about what you are doing. Your accessibility statement is where you communicate how accessible your digital content is and what you are doing about non-compliant content.
Read our guide video captioning and accessibility regulations on where best to focus your efforts and how to maximise the effectiveness of the right technology.
Is it a good idea to remove resources if it’s too difficult to make them accessible?
The regulations don’t say anything about removing content for websites and mobile applications and we suggest you should try to make all resources as accessible as possible to accommodate all disabilities rather than removing ‘difficult’ content. Then carry out a ‘disproportionate burden’ assessment for the very hardest content, describing your reasoning and so keeping people who have accessibility needs properly informed.
Compliance with the regulations falls within the existing enforcement powers of:
- The Equality Advisory Support Service
- The Equality and Human Rights Commission
- The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
It is important to bear in mind that the new accessibility regulations build on existing obligations to people who have a disability under the Equality Act 2010 (or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland). These say that all UK service providers must consider ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people.
It is clear that the onus is now on institutions to comply with the accessibility requirement for websites and web delivered content and that failing to do so is a failure to make reasonable adjustments. Likewise, failing to respond satisfactorily to a request for information in an accessible format is considered a failure to make a reasonable adjustment.
In terms of risk this makes it simpler for a student to make a discrimination claim where websites and learning materials do not meet accessibility standards.
While the new accessibility regulations impose fresh obligations on universities and colleges, they also offer an opportunity to improve student experience and outcomes for all learners.
WCAG 2.2 - Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
At the end of October 2022 the public sector body accessibility regulations were amended to make sure they can continue to operate after the UK has left the European Union. This amendment makes no change to the current expectations of accessibility for public sector websites and mobile apps in the UK. The applicability, exemptions and enforcement process all remain the same.
However, the UK no longer receives changes to regulations made in the EU, and as such the model accessibility statement and monitoring process are now set by the UK Government. A Model Accessibility statement has been published which currently remains the same as the previous EC version.
The technical standard for the regulations in the UK is now the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, to level AA. These are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
W3C are working on an updated version of WCAG – WCAG 2.2. This will include some new criteria that websites and mobile apps will need to meet, and this updated standard is expected to be published early in 2023.
Once the new standard is published, guidance will be updated and monitoring for the new WCAG 2.2 criteria is likely to start in early 2024, assuming publication of the standard is not delayed.
Keep in touch with developments
For practical resources and advice to help you understand and implement accessibility regulations visit our accessibility web pages.
- Read CDDO guidance and tools for digital accessibility
- Read changes to the public sector digital accessibility regulations
- Be part of the digital accessibility community. Share experiences with others and work together to crowdsource resources on our Microsoft Teams site. Apply to join the accessibility community.
- Contact your Jisc relationship manager
Our sincere thanks to everyone who worked with us on putting together this guidance on the accessibility regulations:
- Pinsent Masons
- Alistair McNaught
- Policy Connect
- The steering group of the Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group: Robert McLaren, Dr Abi James, Ben Watson, Alistair McNaught, Dr Fiona Strawbridge, Rohan Slaughter, George Rhodes, and Ben Watson (who have also produced a digital accessibility toolkit)
- Dr Andrea Gideon, University of Liverpool, and Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, University of Bristol Law (Dr Sanchez-Graells has published a useful blog post about the EU accessibility directive)