Recent changes to the regulation of digital services could represent a
step-change in the accessibility of public sector websites and
applications in the UK and across Europe. Accessibility will be
centrally monitored meaning the onus is no longer exclusively on
disabled people to issue legal challenges to digital exclusion. How
will these changes affect disabled people in the UK, in light of
Brexit and the complex relationship between standards and disability?
Our society is becoming increasingly reliant on digital platforms.
When checking in at the doctor’s surgery, applying for a school place
or submitting a tax return, we are expected to interact with digital
platforms every day as governments and public services embrace
‘digital-first’ approaches, ostensibly to provide more efficient and
effective services. Disability has been a driver of technical
innovation in these digital domains. Early in the history of the Web,
inventor Tim Berners-Lee stated ‘The power of the Web is in its
universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability is an
essential aspect’ (W3C 1997). However, for disabled people who use
assistive technology or need adaptations (such as increased
text-size), there has been no guarantee that digital services will
work as both the Web and digital tools have proliferated, and services
have diverged from their universalist origins. At the same time, the
digital accessibility standards mandated by pre-existing legislation
(UNCRPD 2017; Equality Act 2010) have not been enforced. While
internet use among disabled people is increasing in the UK (ONS,
2019), the lack of progress improving digital accessibility across the
UK and Europe is troubling (House of Commons Work and Pensions
Committee 2018).

Things could be about to change. In September 2019, new regulations
that entered the UK statute back in 2018 came into force, with the
potential to remake the digital accessibility landscape. These
regulations, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile
Applications) (No 2) Accessibility Regulations (Public Sector Bodies
2018), are the first to specifically require organisations to ensure
their websites, documents and mobile apps are accessible to all. The
regulations require public sector organisations to comply with digital
accessibility standards (such as WCAG 2.1 Level AA 2008) and publish
an accessibility statement. Moreover, in section 5.11 the regulations
also explicitly identify the provision of accessible digital services
and alternative formats as ‘reasonable adjustments’ under the Equality
Act (2010). These moves offer a concrete legal impetus towards

The regulations originate from the EU directive 2016/2102 on the
accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector
bodies (European Commission (EC), 2016), which support the Digital
Agenda for Europe as well as the implementation of the UNCRPD (2017)
in members states. While the regulations are technical, importantly
the key purpose of the directive is twofold; first, to ensure that all
citizens can access services and participate in society, and promote
and facilitate accessible digital developments; and second, to
mitigate the need for individuals to take legal action to ensure basic
access. To this end, the success or failure of digital accessibility
in the public sector will be centrally monitored for the first time.

These mechanisms are sorely needed. For example, in 2017 with the roll
out of Universal Credit - a transformation of the UK social security
payment system - applications can only be made online. Applicants have
had to complete application forms that had no ‘save’ or return
function and timed-out after 20 min of inactivity, whilst battling
with a complex form system in which ‘41 separate pieces of information
are need to be entered online in order to complete the claim’ (Easton
2014). Accessibility audits by the DWP appear not to have been
completed until 2016 (Anderson 2016). And online barriers have
continued, making applications practically impossible for many with
learning disabilities, amongst others (Hc Deb 2019). This
inaccessibility, in combination with ‘built-in delay’ to payments
(Universal Credit is paid monthly in arrears, resulting in a five-week
wait for the first payment) has proven a tipping point pushing many
into hardship and debt.

To mitigate such failings, the new directive sets out a Europe-wide
framework for monitoring and enforcing accessibility. EU national
governments will now sample a proportion of their websites annually.
This will require national monitoring teams to do a simplified
accessibility check on a sample of their public sector websites. In
the UK this will be approximately 2,000 of 44,000 websites covering
education, health, welfare, local and central government services.
Sampling will be guided by complaints escalated to the government as
well as feedback from representatives of the disabled community. The
process is designed to raise awareness and encourage sharing of best
practice as well as to ensure compliance as part of the commitment ‘to
develop, promulgate and monitor the implementation of minimum
standards and guidelines for the accessibility’ (European Commission
(EC) 2016) by ratifying the UNCRPD.

Monitoring is underpinned by the new requirement for organisations to
publish accessibility statements on their websites. Accessibility
statements should provide transparency on compliance. The required
format also advances the provision for disabled people, through a
requirement to describe in non-technical terms any barriers to
accessing content, what works, how to contact the organisation for
further assistance and how to raise issues with the governments’
monitoring body (EC 2018). Governments must publish a sample of
statements, which the UK government have supplemented with user
research to make it as clear as possible to understand (GDS 2019a). As
a result, for the first time, disabled people will have a clear route
for reporting accessibility issues, requesting alternative formats and
reporting non-compliance issues to external monitoring organisations.
This has been welcomed by disability advocacy organisations and
professionals supporting inclusive practices as a means to both
improve transparency and improve accessibility awareness amongst
website users (JISC 2019; Government Digital Service (GDS) 2018).

But what of Brexit? Well, it’s complicated. The regulations have been
passed into the UK statute – they are part of UK law, irrespective of
Brexit. However, a major concern remains: as the UK leaves the EU, the
UK Government will be essentially monitoring its own performance.
There will be no supra-level oversight, which - given the UN’s
critical assessments of the UK’s performance on austerity, disability
and also digital accessibility - has resulted in scepticism from many
quarters. The UK will the lack the safeguards provided by an
independent regulator.

There are further issues for the UK. The Public Sector Web
Accessibility Regulations divide the role of monitoring and
enforcement. Monitoring will be undertaken by the UK Government’s
Cabinet Office. Enforcement will be subsumed into the Equality and
Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) existing role as the regulatory body
for the Equality Act (2010). It seems that these two aspects,
monitoring and enforcement, have been separated to leverage the EHRC
legal framework to enforce Equality related legislation, rather than
assist with implementing the regulations per se. However, the EHRC
framework has already proven ineffective, failing to ensure that
digital platforms do not indirectly discriminate against disabled
users (Harwood 2016). And there are further calls for the role of the
EHRC itself to be strengthened, with an identified need for a ‘robust
enforcement with accountability for inaction, lack of co-operation or
breach of the requirements’ (Government Digital Service (GDS) 2018).
Responding, the UK Government ‘agrees with the need for clear, robust
and proportionate enforcement mechanism’ (Government Digital Service
(GDS) 2018). However, in the subsequent 12 months, the Government has
provided few details of how the monitoring and enforcement procedures
will work (see GDS 2019b). As a result, there is confusion regarding
which types of organisations will be monitored, how timelines will be
managed alongside other complaints and regulatory frameworks, and the
timescales for enforcement actions. Without a clear mechanism for
creating a ‘critical regulatory community’ (Meidinger 1987) to
facilitate raising expectations, knowledge and standards, these
regulations may join earlier equality legislation in having little
impact on the digital ecosystem. In addition, the EHRC’s current
powers are further limited – it can only address issues of
non-compliance in public organisations who have not complied with the
Public Sector Equality Duty - a separate responsibility to these new
accessibility regulations. Meanwhile, the EHRC’s ‘Litigation and
Enforcement Policy 2019–2022’ (EHRC. 2019), makes no mention of its
new responsibilities or priorities to address web accessibility under
these regulations.

In sum, the proposed monitoring and regulatory framework is missing
many of the important factors that are required to encourage an
accessibility compliant culture. Many digital accessibility experts
would shy away from encouraging a ‘compliance culture’ in the real
fear that it will encourage rote box-ticking or automated,
overtly-technicist approaches to accessibility. Compliance culture can
also be seen to be in tension with innovation. It may occlude the
socio-technical nature of disabled experience online, and overlook
multi-dimensional issues related to supporting disabled people and
their communities. Nonetheless, the need to establish an accessibility
baseline remains pressing. Standards compliance is a powerful tool to
this end. Without these accessibility fundamentals in place, disabled
people are increasingly excluded from online opportunities to apply
for everything from jobs, benefits and education, to banking and
health services, as well as the wider social and economic benefits
that accrue through online activities.

A sea-change in accessibility culture and accessibility education is
needed to build digital capacity, particularly within the workplace,
and within disciplines of computer science, Human Computer Interaction
and web development. To this end we are undertaking new research into
the teaching of accessibility (http://TeachingAccessibility.ac.uk). At
this crucial moment in digital accessibility regulation, however, it
remains to be seen whether the UK can realise the early promise of the
Web for disabled people and deliver the accessible digital services
that are so essential for digital and social inclusion.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
सादर/ Regards

अविनाश शाही/ Avinash Shahi
सहायक/ Assistant
मानव संसाधन प्रबंध विभाग/ Human Resource Management Department
भारतीय रिजर्व बैंक/ Reserve Bank of India
लखनऊ क्षेत्रीय कार्यालय/Lucknow RO
विस्तार/ Extension: 2232

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