All new UK public sector websites must conform to at least ‘AA’ accessibility standards as specified by the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, according to guidance published this month by the Cabinet Office.
Existing central government department websites must conform to ‘AA’ by December 2009 and all other government agencies and non- departmental bodies by March 2011, according to the guidance, ‘Delivering inclusive websites’ ( www.coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=129 ).
The guidance allows public bodies a little more breathing space than was proposed in a draft published last autumn (see www.headstar.com/egblive/?p=55). This had called for compliance for all sites by December 2008.
The final guidance – which is not mandated by law – also tones down the severity of its warning of repercussions for non-compliant bodies, compared with last year’s draft.
The draft had threatened to switch off non-compliant websites altogether, warning: “websites which fail to meet the mandated level of conformance shall be subject to the withdrawal process for .gov.uk domain names”. The final guidance issues a similar warning, but using the softer formula ‘may be at risk’ instead of ‘shall be subject to': “Government website owners are reminded to follow the conditions of use for a .gov.uk name (Registering .gov.uk domain names (TG114)). Websites which fail to meet the .gov.uk accessibility requirements may be at risk of having their domain name withdrawn”.
The conditions of use for .gov.uk domains referenced here, document TG114, do not spell out in clear terms what precise actions government websites need to take to be accessible. Instead they state in general terms: “Applications (web, email, etc) using a .gov.uk domain name must comply with current UK legislation and support channels that provide accessibility for disabled people.Abuse of [sic] will result in the name being withdrawn” (see fastlink.headstar.com/caboff1 ).
Other areas covered by the new guidance includes a requirement for bodies to produce website accessibility policies; and advice on assessment of accessibility through the use of user testing and other methods.