Will the new Accessibility Regulations make any real difference?

closed padlock on a shut dor

On 23 September, 2018, the EU Web Accessibility Directive became law. Websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies have to meet an accessibility requirement. While not explicitly referring to ‘Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), course documents, and video recordings of lectures’ as listed by Wonkhe the need for online content to be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust (WCAG 2.0) strongly suggests this is the case.

However, it isn’t obvious.

The majority of media coverage I’ve seen so far prioritises the technical structures of websites and mobile apps. Neither Jisc’s Accessible Organisations or Gov.uk’s Make your public sector website or app accessible make explicit reference to resources for teaching and learning.

white plasticine person carrying a gold key

So already I’m confused. Exactly what does the law say with regard to the day-to-day digital documents uploaded to institutional VLEs?

It seemed I had to do what my first supervisor always advised – read the original text. I started with the European Directive.

Ignoring the paradox of centre alignment, capital letters and fully justified paragraph text!

There are two references to intranets

(34) Member States should be able to extend the application of this Directive to other types of websites and mobile applications, in particular intranet or extranet websites and mobile applications not covered by this Directive which are designed for and used by a limited number of persons in the workplace or in education….

Paragraph 37 was more helpful with regard to accessibility requirements.

(37)

The four principles of accessibility are: perceivability, meaning that information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive; operability, meaning that user interface components and navigation must be operable; understandability, meaning that information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable; and robustness, meaning that content must be robust enough to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. (my emphasis)

So there it is!

If content has to be robust it has to be accessible.

It seems the detail is in the exemptions. The Directive refers to the content of extranets and intranets while the UK statute, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations also list content under the exemptions.

(2) ‘These Regulations do not apply to the following content of a website and mobile application of a public sector body

  • office file formats published before 23rd September 2018…
  • pre-recorded time-based media published before 23rd September 2020.

Office file formats are defined as ‘a document in a format that is not intended primarily for use on the web and that is included in web pages, such as Adobe Portable Document Format, Microsoft Office documents or their open-source equivalents.’

It sounds like everything uploaded to a VLE has to comply.

The law came into force this week. All new content has to be compliant within one year and existing websites within two years..

I should be delighted, I think.

black silhouette of a person juming for joy against a background of words meaning delight

Instead, I’m not sure what real difference this will make.  Accessibility is an attitude as much as a practice. It’s complex.  While the new law makes it clear the structures of websites and apps must be accessible, it could have done more to define the nature of the digital content it applies to.

PDF, Word, PowerPoint, audio and video are probably the most frequently used file formats by staff who teach and support learning.  Is the law really saying each of these have to be accessible i.e. follow WCA2 and be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust? If so it would be useful to see this stated more explicitly.

MS Office logos

I have questions.

What about teaching and learning material on institutional blogs, or student work posted on sites provided by universities, or feedback given using audio or video on a VLE?

Changing practice requires a sound rationale. You shouldn’t need to be a lawyer to understand the law but this is how it feels with regards to the Regulations .

I feel bad about my lack of enthusiasm but revisiting the Digital Soapbox  shows some of the breadth and scale of digital exclusion issues.

These posts go back eight years. What has changed?

Digital inaccessibility is the scandal of 21st century. The social model with regard to the built environment is broken every day. Categories of ‘disablement’ grow incrementally year on year, while support for equal opportunities for access and participation gets less.

black and white image of a wheelchair on the edge of a kerb

Digital exclusion is part of larger structured attitudes towards difference and diversity. For all legislation is needed as a baseline, I’m not sure these new Accessibility Regulations will make a great deal of difference to day-to-day practice.

Lee Fallin and I have been looking for ways to support digitally inclusive literacy and developed this poster suggesting changes in habits with digital content e.g. selecting a good colour contrast and a readable font.

Following the tips on Designing for diverse learners could make a big difference to how students access text, images and multimedia. The new Accessibility Regulations are big on structures but vague on content. Ensuring accessible resources comes down to the basics with text and image. This is our starting point and the poster is freely available to anyone who wants to use, reuse or repurpose it.

Accessibility was a fundamental ambition of the early web pioneers.

‘The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.’ Tim Berners Lee (1997) World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Launches Web Accessibility Initiative. WAI press release 7 April 1997. www.w3.org/Press/WAI-Launch.html

The impact of this project on the users with disabilities is to give them the same access to information as users without a disability. In addition, if we succeed making web accessibility the norm rather than the exception, this will benefit not only the disability community but the entire population.”  Daniel Dardailler (1997) W3C Web Accessibility Initiative Project Manager Telematics Applications Programme TIDE Proposal.Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) http://www.w3.org/WAI/TIDE/f1.htm 

Twenty years on digital content is more inaccessible than ever.

Will these regulations make any real difference?

Hating to say it, but I’m not sure they will.

Please, somebody tell me I’m wrong!