The European Accessibility Act set out to make the digital world accessible to everybody, including anyone with a disability. The COVID-19 pandemic has solidified the dire need for digital products and services to be easily accessible to disabled people without external help from caregivers. The Act became law in the UK in 2018 and there were three compliance deadlines for the regulations:
- 23 September 2019 for new public sector websites published on or after 23 September 2018
- 23 September 2020 for any other public sector website
- 23 June 2021 for public sector mobile apps
To ensure compliance with the European Accessibility Act, public sector organisations must assess their platform, formulate a plan to fix any accessibility issues identified, and publish an accessibility statement.
Who benefits from implementing the Accessibility Act?
Aside from public sector websites, business websites also benefit when they comply with the Accessibility Act. In post-Brexit UK, many businesses maintain a close tie with EU-based partners and customers, which means that their platforms must be in line with the European Act. Similarly, in the United States, ADA compliance for websites is mandatory for businesses, so upgrading digital platforms to make them widely accessible is a multinational focus.
The primary beneficiaries of these changes are the people with disabilities who can expand their digital reach and maintain their independence in a web-based world. They are not a minority. There are 11 million disabled people living in the UK alone. Across the EU, there are 76 million disabled people and worldwide as many as 550 million. Their ability to access products and services should not be optional for business owners and marketers, but a priority.
Who needs the Accessibility Act?
When it comes to digital access, the main category that comes to mind when thinking about those who might have difficulties accessing the online world is those with a visual impairment. While they certainly form a sizeable proportion of those in need of the Accessibility Act, they are not the only ones. The main groups of people who struggle to access digital resources include:
- People with visual impairment - In the UK, there are 1.8 million people with visual impairment and 180,000 of them are registered as blind. To facilitate access for the visually impaired websites should be compatible with the software used by the visually impaired.
- People with hearing impairment - Of the two million people with hearing impairments in the UK, 50,000 are deaf and use sign language to communicate.
- People who experience difficulties using their hands - this can be caused by a wide range of conditions and there are 2.6 million Britons with a condition which impairs their use of keyboards, phones, tablets.
- People with learning and concentration difficulties - As many as 2.2 million people in the UK struggle with concentration, memory, and learning disabilities. There are two million Britons suffering from dyslexia.
- People over the age of 65 - While they may not be classed as disabled, their ability to access web resources may be limited and it might deteriorate along with their health.
The need for mobile accessibility
These days people expect platforms to be fully accessible on mobile devices. While many regard mobile devices as a mere commodity, for millions of people with a disability, mobile access is a necessity because they may be unable to use a laptop or computer. This has prompted a rapid move towards making mobile apps accessible to the disabled. The compliance deadline for the UK's public sector is only months away.
The pandemic and Accessibility Act enforcement
While efforts to enforce the requirements of the Accessibility Act were already in place before 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic has significantly increased the need for these changes to be made. Social distancing and isolation have left many disabled people without the assistance they usually rely on. When they turned to online services, accessibility made a real difference.
However, the new working conditions enforced by the pandemic have also affected the implementation process, making it more difficult to make the necessary changes. Happily, accessibility has remained a priority - even as the United Kingdom faced the constant challenges of the pandemic.
In November 2020, the Government Digital Service (GDS) held its very first entirely-virtual cross-government meetup, which was aimed to provide support, guidance, and training to those working on the implementation. The aim is to keep up the pace and meet the 23 July 2021 deadline for mobile apps as well.
It remains to be seen if the UK will manage to meet the July deadline, but the drive to improve accessibility should remain a priority in the long term. People with disabilities deserve full access to products and services, public and private.
Copyright 2021. Article was made possible by site supporter Andrej Kovacevic.