For Higher Education institutions, having an inclusive and accessible digital estate is not a choice, it is a legal requirement. 

Here we talk through the EU Web Accessibility Directive, what this means for your institution and how to map out your accessibility journey.

What is digital accessibility?

The word accessibility is used to describe whether something can be used by everyone, regardless of ability. Digital accessibility is referring to websites, apps and digital tools, ensuring that people with disabilities (permanent, temporary or situational) find them easy to use. 

Why is it important?

At least 15% of the world’s population - one billion people - have a recognised disability. There are many ways in which a person’s disability may affect the way they perceive information online, and how they navigate within pages. A commitment to accessibility ensures an inclusive experience for everyone visiting your digital channels. 

Having become a staple within business strategy, disability inclusion is increasingly becoming a key component of an organisation’s digital strategy. For some sectors however, it is not a choice, it is a legal responsibility. 

With the Higher Education sector challenged by the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be increasingly important for institutions to provide information and resources that appeal to and can be accessed by the broadest catchment of potential students.  Social distancing is making remote learning options more important than ever. With a substantial amount of teaching set to continue online, it’s vitally important that courses are taught in a way that is inclusive and does not disadvantage those with specific accessibility requirements.

Your legal requirements

The UK government state

Your service must be accessible to everyone who needs it. You may be breaking the law if you do not make it accessible.

Legislation from the government means that all public sector websites must comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive

What is the EU Web Accessibility Directive?

The EU Web Accessibility Directive is a piece of legislation which aims to consolidate accessibility standards, making web accessibility a legal requirement.

The Directive requires that member states (and yes, this directive will remain as law when we are no longer a member state) have processes in place to “ensure that public sector bodies take the necessary measures to make their websites and mobile applications more accessible”. 

Unlike the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the Directive does not include rules about how to make websites and mobile applications accessible. However, the four WCAG principles which provide the foundation for accessibility (perceivable, operable, understandable and robust) are present throughout. This begins to unify the digital accessibility standards for EU member states, by putting WCAG at the core.

How does this affect higher education?

Any new websites launched after 23rd September 2019 must meet accessibility standards and must have an accessibility statement.

If a public sector organisation (including Higher Education institutions) launched a website before 23rd September 2019, the website must meet the accessibility standards by 23rd September 2020. Improving accessibility for an existing website is notoriously more difficult than building with accessibility in mind from the beginning. Organisations with older sites therefore have slightly longer to meet the required standards.

Accessibility standards also apply to mobile apps, however, organisations have until 23rd June 2021 to meet that deadline.

If you’d like to read more on the EU Web Accessibility Directive, take a look at these: 

How do you meet accessibility standards?

Accessibility isn’t a one-off task, but an ongoing commitment. We highly recommend that accessibility is a core part of your digital strategy, if not your overall business strategy. Assessing your current state is a good place to start, but to maintain high accessibility standards, you may want to consider internal accessibility training, and quarterly audits and usability testing to ensure they continue. 

If you are considering a new website design, a move from one CMS to another, or have a Drupal 7 site (see Planning your Drupal roadmap for more on this), we strongly advise you to prioritise accessibility as part of this rebuild. Improving the accessibility of an existing website is notoriously more difficult than building with accessibility in mind from the beginning of a project. 

Here’s an overview of next steps you can take to kick start your commitment to accessibility:

Accessibility audit

An accessibility audit is an in-depth review of your website against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1. An audit will highlight where there are problems in terms of accessibility and how to address them. An accessibility audit can help you both establish your current state of accessibility, and then can be used as a tool to check in as your site grows and evolves. 

Usability testing

Usability testing with people with disabilities involves a user experience practitioner taking a user through common journeys on the website. Doing this with people with a range of disabilities will reveal issues that they face, and can enable you to feed this back into the design, user experience or structure of your website.

Accessibility remediation 

Accessibility remediation is about making your website or codebase as accessible as possible within the technical constraints of your existing platform. Our team can help you identify, prioritise and fix accessibility issues to ensure your website is inclusive, engaging and easy for everyone to use.     

Accessibility strategy

An accessibility strategy will ensure that your organisation is committed to providing an inclusive experience for all. The formation of a strategy creates a shared understanding of accessibility, and will put steps in place to achieve and maintain excellent standards. 

A new website build

If you are embarking upon a new website build, ensure that accessibility is baked into your project from the get-go. Ensure you select a development partner with a team experienced in developing to high accessibility standards. 

Your next steps

It is imperative that higher education institutions address accessibility and meet legislation as per the EU Web Accessibility Directive or they could be open to legal ramifications. 

Each organisation’s accessibility journey is different. We can work with you to define a bespoke programme of work to establish the level of accessibility you currently hold, and define the work needed to meet and uphold high accessibility standards going forward. Get in touch today to discuss your programme of work.