Happy birthday BS8878 – some thoughts on the first year

Jon Hassell, the lead author of BS 8878, contacted me last week asking me to provide some thoughts towards a blog he was pulling together with views from industry experts on its first year. BS 8878 is the British standard that provides a code of practice for commissioning accessible websites and web products. You can read more about it in this blog.

Jon kindly included some of my comments in his blog, which was published earlier today. Here is the long form version of what I said:

BS 8878 is undoubtedly a useful tool for providing organisations with a framework to follow when commissioning new websites and apps. In turn, this makes it an important tool in assisting organisations with complying with their obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

BS 8878 is unusual in that it is a British standard that has been driven primarily to help promote and improve equality and compliance by service providers, employers and educational institutions with their legal obligations under equality law. Often standards come into existence to codify/bring together good practice, and provide an objective way of comparing organisations or easily referencing a requirement in a contract, but it is less common for them to emerge to assist with complying with law. From a lawyer’s perspective, BS 8878 exists because, unlike the building of physical premises, the law does not mandate specific accessibility requirements when building a website. It is true to say that BS 8878 does not do that either, but it does at least provide website operators with a process to follow, issues to consider, questions to ask, and pointers to external technical guidelines like the W3C’s WCAG.

BS 8878’s current standing
But BS 8878 currently sits in an awkward place.

The development of its predecessor, PAS 78 was funded and led by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), giving endorsement from the organisation mandated with promoting compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act (and therefore implicitly saying “follow this and you’ll be ok”). However, the successor body to the DRC, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) did not appear to formally particpate in the development of the successor standard. So, whilst BS 8878 is mentioned (here and here) on the EHRC website, it is not formally referenced in any of the codes of practice issued by the EHRC. This is despite the EHRC’s code of practice for service providers being published three months after the launch of BS 8878. I look forward to the EHRC updating its statutory codes of practice to include a reference to BS 8878 and provide organisations with clear guidance on what it expects.

The need for education
It is clear that there is still work to be done on educating people on the use of BS 8878. When referring to it in a recent blog, I was asked why I hadn’t referred to the W3C’s WCAG instead. My answer was that whilst that particular blog may have had a techie slant to it, the majority of people involved in procuring web and app design services (or responsible for internal legislative compliance) will find BS 8878 a far more accessible (no pun intended) document than the W3C’s technical guidelines, and provides a framework that goes beyond a list of technical design requirements. BS 8878 emphasises, and this is important, that simply complying with the WCAG guidelines is unlikely to meet the requirements of the Equality Act. As BS 8878 explains, organisations can’t simply carry out an automated tick box check of the HTML, but instead need to user test the site or app itself to ensure that it actually is accessible.

So happy birthday BS 8878. It’s been a good first year, but there is still much work to do to explain to the world how you fit into the legislative framework and to educate people on your true purpose.

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