Archive for the 'Web accessibility' Category

Will the proposed EU directive on web accessibility lead to confusion and hinder innovation?

Following on from my blogpost last month on the European Commission’s draft directive on the accessibility of public sector websites, I have an article in the forthcoming edition of C&L Magazine, the journal for the Society of Computers and the Law.

Under the proposed directive, new EU-wide rules will be introduced setting out specific requirements in relation to the accessibility of certain websites operated by public sector organisations. In the article, I analyse the impact of the proposed directive on public authorities.

If implemented as it currently stands, the directive raises a number of concerns:

  • Firstly, organisations are presumed to comply with the new law if they achieve Level AA conformance with the W3C‘s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG). The problem with WCAG is that whilst they provide a good starting point for accessible design, they are only one part of the wider accessibility jigsaw. Indeed, legislating in a manner that requires compliance with a fixed set of technical guidelines is concerning, because WCAG (and therefore the law) will inevitably fail to keep up with evolving technologies for delivering online services (for example, mobile or rich media).
  • This approach could have been mitigated by allowing organisations to deviate from WCAG compliance, if they can justify why this is an appropriate thing to do (as the UK Equality Act provides), but the draft directive does not provide such flexibility.
  • Finally, and perhaps more concerningly, the directive does not explain how it is intended to interact with pre-existing national laws that apply to the accessibility of services provided over the web, where a breach is based on actual discrimination taking place. This creates the very real risk that a public authority could comply with the requirements of the directive, whilst simulateously being in breach of its obligations under the Equality Act (or vice versa).

Whilst the directive may help achieve the Commission’s primary stated aim of removing barriers in the market for the provision of web development services in the EU (by ensuring that public sector organisations are obliged to set standardised technical criteria for accessibility), the directive is a fairly blunt instrument. I remain unconvinced that the directive will have such a positive impact upon the accessibility of websites to users with disabilities.

A far better approach would be to look at adopting the guidance contained in the British Standards Institute’s British standard on commissioning accessible websites.

You can read the article in full on the SCL website.

Martin Sloan

European Commission proposes new laws on accessibility of public sector websites

As I reported on Twitter earlier this week, the European Commission has proposed a new directive governing the accessibility of websites operated by organisations in the public sector.

If passed, the directive would set out requirements in relation to how many public sector bodies ensure that their websites are accessible to users with disabilities. The European Commission estimates that there are over 700,000 public sector websites in the EU.

Determining what is “accessible”
One of the big issues with legislating on website accessibility is the need to have an objective set of criteria for determining what an accessible website looks like. Accessibility, by its nature, is a subjective issue, as accessibility problems will vary depending on an individual’s disabilities and the device/browser software that the user is using. This makes it difficult to have a law that sets out clearly what organisations have to do.

The UK Equality Act deals with this by a set of objective criteria for determining discrimination (that apply regardless of the type of discrimination that is alleged to be taking place), but translating this into the specific steps an organisation should be taking in relation to its website has always been difficult, as the law simply refers to policies or practices that have effect of discriminating against the individual concerned.

The proposed directive addresses this issue by presuming that the website meets the accessibility requirements where it complies with a number of external standards.

These are:

  • initially, the recently approved international standard on website accessibility ISO/IEC 40500), which in turn references Level AA conformance under version 2.0 of the W3C‘s long-established and recognised web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG);
  • any European standard on website accessibility, which may include any standard under the ongoing Commission’s Mandate M/376 project (which is also likely to be based on WCAG Level AA conformance); and
  • ultimately the harmonised standards for accessibility drawn up and approved by the EU institutions, which in turn will be based on the European standard based on M/376.

Disappointingly, the presumption of “accessibility” appears to be based only on compliance with tick box criteria (rather than say, user testing, as recommended by the British Standard BS8878). However, as I note above, it is difficult to legislate for subjective assessment.

The proposed directive is intended to sit alongside the proposed European Disability Act, which will address the accessibility of goods and services, including ICT.

As a directive, the new laws will need to be locally implemented in each member state. The Commission’s current timetable envisages the date for this laws coming into force as being 30 June 2014.

Whilst the transitional arrangements are not yet clear, public sector bodies looking to update their websites over the coming year should bear in mind the likely new laws and accessibility requirements when developing their technical requirements specifications.

For many, this should not require a huge change in approach, as WCAG level AA conformance has been a UK Government recommended standard for several years now. However, if the directive is passed then that obligation will now be part of a clear legal framework.

Martin Sloan

VISA, Olympic Park and accessible ATMs – what does the law say?

This morning news broke about the RNIB‘s row with VISA over the accessibility of ATMs at Olympic Park. Despite the fact that Olympic Park opened for business a month ago, I’m sure that it is no coincidence that the RNIB chose to break this story on day 2 of the Paralymics.

The issue relates to the accessibility features incorporated into VISA’s ATMs.

As a sponsor of the Olympics, VISA is the only provider of ATMs at Olympic venues (although it’s not clear whether the ATMs are in fact white-labelled ATMs provided by a UK retail bank such as London 2012 sponsor Lloyds).

RNIB had apparently been working with LOCOG and VISA for three years in the run up to the Olympics to ensure that the ATMs onsite were accessible. It appears that the ATM hardware deployed had accessibility features such as Braille pads and headphone sockets, but the software needed to enable these features was not installed.

The RNIB threatened VISA with legal action, but withdrew this threat when VISA promised to install the necessary software on two of the ATMs on site. Despite that promise, this work has still not been done.

The law
The relevant law here is the Equality Act, under which service providers have an obligation not to discriminate against people with disablities in the provision of goods and services. The duty is an evolving duty, meaning that service providers should continue to review the services they provide and the availabilty of new technology that might enable them to overcome accessibiltiy barriers.

In this case, the ATM is a means of providing access to cash (the service). You can find out a bit more about the duties under the Equality Act in this blog post.

On the face of it, given that LOCOG and VISA were fully aware of the issue, it appears that a breach of the Equality Act may have taken place. VISA’s official excuse appears to be that it “ran out of time”, but that’s not a justification open to service providers under the Equality Act.

Both LOCOG and VISA have large resources available to them, and had years to plan for the Games, so it’s hard to see how a lack of time is a credible justification. Given that talking ATMs are widely deployed in the United States (and in smaller numbers in the UK), the necessary software is clearly available on the market.

VISA’s position
VISA still maintains that it has complied with its obligations under the Equality Act.

It’s not clear what VISA’s reasoning is for this. Having been to Olympic Park last month, I’m also pretty sure that there isn’t an over the counter money withdrawal facility which might be more accessible to visually impaired users. VISA may be relying upon the tactile/Braille keypads providing visually impaired users with a level of accessibility, and the fact that talking ATMs are not (yet) widely available in the UK.

Of course, the tactile/Braille pad doesn’t allow the user to “see” what is on the screen (which is the pupose of the audio/headphone facility), meaning that the ATMs are likely to be more difficult for visually impaired users to use. Whether that leads to any visually impaired spectator bringing legal action under the Equality Act remains to be seen.

PR impact
Regardless of whether any legal action is raised, it’s not a good story for LOCOG and VISA.

12 years ago, the organisers of the Sydney Olympics (SOCOG) were successfully sued by a visually impaired Australian man over the inaccessibility of the Sydney 2000 website, and ordered to pay him AU$20,000 in damages. In finding that SOCOG had breached the Australian equivalent of the Equality Act, the Australian EHRC made a particular point of emphasising that SOCOG and its technology partner IBM could not rely upon excessive cost or lack of time as a justification for not provding an accessible website. The case became a landmark case for website accessibility throughout the world.

ATM accessibility is something that has been on the RNIB’s agenda for a number of years, and many banks have commited to improving the accessibility of their ATMs as they refresh their estate. In this case, VISA was deploying new ATMs at a new facility. It was not a case of outdated equipment at legacy sites.

Given the high profile nature of the Olympics and PR damage caused to both VISA and LOCOG by this morning’s story, it’s therefore surprising that this issue wasn’t addressed as a priority when deploying the on-site ATMs.

Could adhoc solutions to the cookie law be harming website usability?

Last week I was invited to speak to members of the Scottish Usability Professionals Association (SUPA) about the new cookie law.

SUPA “brings together UK professionals based in Scotland from the design, technology and research communities who share a vision of creating compelling technology that meets users’ needs and abilities”, and the topic of my presentation was the interaction of the cookie law with disability discrimination laws and website usability.

One consequence of the cookie law is that a number of the consent mechanisms being adopted by organisations to deal with cookie consent have an adverse impact upon the accessibility of the website to users with disabilities, and the usability of the website to users as a whole. This not only makes the website harder for users to use, but might also put the organisation in breach of its obligations under the Equality Act.

Potential usability and accessibility issues
We had a great discussion. Here are a number of the usability and accessibility issues we identified:

  • The use of a pop-up upon arriving at a website can clearly impact on the user experience – users can’t get to the information that they want to access without first reading/dealing with the pop-up. Does that inhibit users from finding the information that they are looking for?
  • On the other hand, the use of implied consent and a link to a cookies policy at the foot of the page is also poor from a usability perspective. Users are unlikely to see it (particularly on a mobile device), and therefore it’s difficult to say that consent has been given.
  • Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets raise particular issues. Pop-up boxes at the bottom of the page are difficult to read and may be overlooked. If the default setting of these mechanisms is opt-in, then it may be difficult to argue that consent can be implied.
  • Pop-ups or cookie control devices that use Javascript may not be compatible with screen readers or devices that do not use Javascript. This may cause problems for users of those devices.
  • Pop-ups are often set to disappear after a certain period of time (for example 10 seconds), which may not be sufficient time for the user to read and understand the message
  • Again, on pop-ups, some pop-ups have a link to a cookies policy, but the cookies policy page appears on screen *behind* the pop-up, making it impossible to read without accepting all the cookies!
  • Many websites offer an all or nothing approach to cookies – users either have to accept all cookies or none, limiting user choice and user control.
  • Websites that only offer an “I agree” option – users may click “agree” simply to get rid of the box, menu bar etc.
  • Granular, interactive, control panels (such as those used by BT and BBC) can help improve usability and user control, but are often set to accept all cookies (including targeted advertising cookies) by default, or lump together targeted advertising with social sharing tools.
  • There is no consistent approach across websites (even in the implementation of third party products, such as Cookie Control) meaning that each website is different.

What is the solution?
This last point is perhaps one of the most telling.

From a user experience perspective, a multitude of different systems and approaches is confusing, and does little to increase user understanding of cookies (one of the aims of the new law). In order to be effective, a common approach is needed. If not, and websites continue to deal with cookies in different ways, usability will suffer.

This can be achieved in two ways: by clear guidance from the regulator and, perhaps more importantly in the long term, the implementation of suitably sophisticated privacy dashboards in web browsers. Ultimately, the reason for website operators having to introduce adhoc consent mechanisms is a failure to have in place an appropriate browser based solution at the time the law came into force. If privacy features can be built into the UI can be done with the iOS developer platform, then there is no reason it can’t be done across browsers generally.

In both cases, this needs joint action from the various national privacy regulators in Europe.

In the case of the former, to agree consistent, more detailed guidance of what is expected, and in the case of the latter to work with browser manufacturers and the W3C to develop a common browser based solution. When the new cookie law was published last summer we were told that the latter was happening, but to date there has been little sign of progress.

The Do Not Track initiative may give the building blocks for doing that, if it can be widened to cover all cookies and adopt the principles of privacy by default. Things are moving in the right direction, but as recent coverage reports, Do Not Track isn’t yet the panacea that some people would like it to be.

What do you think?

PS for a more detailed, technical assessment of some of the usability and accessibility problems with various cookie law solutions, read SUPA member James Coltham’s excellent blog on the subject.

Our colleagues over on EmploymentBlog have blogged a reminder that the specific equality duties on public authorities under the Equality Act 2010 are now in force in Scotland. These duties replace the previous disability equality duty under the old Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA).
As part of its review, each public authority should review its policies and procedures in relation to IT and IT accessibility to ensure that they comply with the new public sector equality duties in relation to people with disabilities. Unlike the other general (largely reactive) non-discrimination duties, the public sector equality duty requires proactive steps, and the plans put in place under the new legislation should be an evolution of those put in place under the DDA.
This includes ensuring that ITTs for goods and services address IT accessibility, by way of reference to specific technical requirements, standards and award criteria in the ITT. For example, ensuring that a new IT system is suitable for use by disabled employees, or that a new website content management system produces pages that can be accessed by disabled users.
As Gemma notes, the equivalent duties came into force in England and Wales last year. You can find more guidance on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.

Brodies Employment Blog

The general public sector equality duty is set out in the Equality Act 2010 and came into force on 5 April 2011. It requires all public authorities to consider equality in exercising their functions, including decision-making, designing internal and external policies and delivering service. It covers the following protected characteristics: age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation, plus marriage/civil partnership with regard to discrimination in employment.

Public authorities are required, in the exercise of their functions, to have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and other prohibited conduct;
  • advance equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not; and
  • foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

The Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) (Scotland) Regulations 2012 (the “Regulations”) came into force on 27…

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Techblogger seminar on cookies law and usability

So, in advance of the expiry tomorrow of the ICO’s one year grace period for complying with the new cookies law, you’ve carried out your website audit and privacy impact assessment, identified the most appropriate way to obtain consent from users, and have implemented (or in the process of implementing) the necessary changes to your website.*

But did you think about usability and accessibility when developing your solution? Will it work on a mobile device? What about different browsers? How does it impact upon the customer journey? Might it put people off using your website? Will a visually impaired user be able to use it? Might your solution have unwittingly have put you in breach of your obligations under the Equality Act?

To help answer some of these questions, or at least set the background to facilitate a discussion amongst those that might have the answers, I’ve been invited by the Scottish chapter of the Usability Professionals Association to host a seminar on the new cookies law. For those of you that attended the User Vision seminars earlier this month, this seminar will provide a similar overview of the law, but will also look at the obligations of service providers under the Equality Act, and then go on to look at some of the solutions being adopted from a usability perspective, and question whether there is a better way of doing things.

Event details
The event takes place on Tuesday 12 June.

To find out more information and to register, follow this link to the SUPA website. The event is open to non-members as well as members, so if you are interested in learning about the usability issues, or want to share a cookies solution that you think ticks the usability boxes do come along.

Hope to see you there!

*If you’ve yet to start then I’d recommend reading our quick guide (PDF) to compliance with the new cookies law and our cookies law resources page.

Mobile apps, accessibility and the Equality Act

The One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition has published a report warning that elderly and disabled users are at risk of digital exclusion if mobile apps are not developed with accessibility in mind. The One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition’s members include accessibility charity Abilitynet, BT, the UK technology trade association Intellect, Lloyds Banking Group and City University London.

The findings of the report are not surprising, and are reminiscent of similar warnings many years ago when web 1.0 was taking off, and traditional websites contained many accessibility problems. However, given the exponential growth in the use of smartphones (particularly as a low cost alternative to getting online) and the increasing reliance upon delivering services online, the warning is perhaps even more concerning this time around.

Seven steps to accessibility
To help mitigate these potential problems, the Coalition advocates that app developers follow their Seven Steps to Accessibility.

The seven steps are largely common sense, but should help organisations to ensure that accessibility of their apps is factored in at an early stage, particularly when combined with guidance such as BS8878.

What does the law say?
The relevant law here is the Equality Act 2010, which obliges service providers not to discriminate against people with disabilities by reason of their disability. It also contains (more limited) obligations not discriminate on the grounds of age.

The obligations include a duty not to indirectly discriminate against people on the grounds of age or disability, a duty not to discriminate on the terms of service, and an obligation to make reasonable adjustments. You can read more about these duties in this blogpost.

These duties have interesting implications for evolving areas such as mobile apps, where accessibility technologies and standards are still immature, and are often dependant upon the hardware and software accessibility features built in to the mobile device by the device manufacturer.

What if a service provider offers a service through a conventional website, which is accessible to all users, but wishes to provide a better mobile solution using a bespoke mobile app? Does the Equality Act work in such a way as to hinder innovation for the wider world by preventing a service provider from launching a mobile app if that app is not accessible to users with disabilities?

This is something that Jonathan Hassell and I chewed over on World Usability Day last year. Ultimately, each case will depend on its facts but the answer to the question is, I think, no.

Proportionate means to acheive a legitimate aim
The duty not to indirectly discriminate against disabled or elderly users applies where:

A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice which is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s

However the duty is only infringed where the service provider cannot show that the provision, criterion or practice is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

In this case, the service provider’s aim is to improve the ways in which its customers can access its services on the move and when using mobile devices (the “legitimate aim”), and provided that the service provider has given reasonable congniscance to any accessibility measures that are available when designing the mobile app, it is likely that its actions are proportionate.

This is particularly so where the app is only made available on certain platforms, and where elderly or disabled users can already access the service through other channels such as the conventional website or by telephone.

So the fact that an app cannot be made accessible to a specific group of users should not stop the service provider from making it available to the wider public.

Reasonable adjustments
Whilst an initial mobile app may not be accessible to disabled users, service providers do have a duty, under the reasonable adjustments obligation, to continue to review the means through which they provide services and consider whether any adjustments can be made which will improve the accessibility to users with disablities (this obligation does not apply to potential age discrimination).

This is an evolving duty, and so requires service providers to take advantage of new technologies and techniques – for example, new hardware or operating system features, and new W3C standards.

As with conventional websites, service providers should therefore ensure that accessibility improvements are continually reviewed as further versions of the app are developed.

RNIB launches web accessibility discrimination claim against BMI Baby

I see that the RNIB has announced that it is taking action against BMI Baby over the failure of the airline to make its website accessible to blind and partially sighted customers.

If it goes to court, this will be the first court case in the UK in relation to website accessibility. My understanding is that whilst a number of previous actions have been threatened by the RBIB, these have all been settled on a confidential basis before the action has reached court. In this case, it looks like the RNIB have been trying the same approach of education and agreement before taking action, but following inaction on the part of BMI Baby the RNIB has finally lost it’s patience.

So watch this space. Given the early publicity by the RNIB it will be interesting to see whether this one goes all the way.

For more on the law here (the Equality Act 2010), see this blog post.

Techblogger article on digital participation in Scotland in new Scottish policy magazine

For those of you not on Twitter, I have an article in the launch edition of a new online magazine called Scottish Policy Now.

The magazine aims to provide regular news and analysis of changing government policies; regulation; initiatives and legislation and the impact of all of these on Scotland and people living in Scotland. The first issue looks at digital participation in Scotland, and follows up last month’s GovCamp Scotland conference.

You can read my thoughts on some of the policy and legislative changes that I think need to be implemented in Scotland in order to increase digital participation in Scotland by following this link. I look at the effective use of IT in the public sector, broadband infrastructure, e-accessibility and the need to effectively lobby the Westminster government and Europe on future legislation and policy.

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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