For people involved with the creation of web services in the EU, May 25th, 2018 and about a year backward from that was a lot about GDPR and making sites compliant with that EU regulation. By now that should be done and dealt with and a new topic and related law is upon us. The media is already heating up about accessibility and it is expected to get increasing attention as we again approach a deadline: September 23rd.
What is accessibility?
Accessibility is basically all about making services available for everybody, not only regarding web services. A pedestrian crossing is a great example of accessibility. In Finland, we have traffic lights with a red man standing still when you must not cross the street and beeping or ticking sound to relay that message also to visually challenged people. A traffic light with a green walking man and a different beeping or ticking sound indicate when it is allowed to cross the street. In the US the corresponding practice is not as accessible – as they do not have a picture of a red standing man and a green walking man. They instead have traffic lights with the texts ‘WALK’ and ‘DON’T WALK’. This will basically not serve people who a) don’t understand English, and b) people or children who cannot read. In the same way, the accessibility legislation requires that web services of public administration should be possible to use by an as wide a range of people as possible like blind people, people who don’t understand the local language and less experienced users of web services as examples.
What does this law exactly mean?
All websites of public administration in the EU must be accessible by September 23rd, 2020. However, new sites published after 23.09.2018, must be accessible already on 23.09.2019. As accessibility compliance repairs can include quite a bit of work, even possible redesign of the site, it is highly recommended to verify accessibility right away. In Finland, there is a task force that will enforce this accessibility regulation from the beginning of the year 2020.
But it is not enough that the site is accessible. The regulation also states that there needs to be an accessibility policy on each site that can be easily found. This document should explain the state of accessibility and accessibility solutions of that site so that a challenged person could read instructions on how to utilize this site if it is not otherwise clear. Additionally, there should be a way for challenged people to give feedback regarding accessibility of the site. This too must be easy enough to find, and the owner of the site has two weeks to respond to such feedback. Otherwise, the person dissatisfied with the accessibility has the right to file a report with the enforcing entity of that country.
Otso Lahti and Kati Utriainen have been focused on accessibility for many years
What are the requirements?
This is the easy part, as the requirements are not some long legal text as is the case of GDPR. The requirement is defined as the WCAG standard version 2.1, class A and AA. This doesn’t sound simple to understand at all, but it actually is quite clear. WCAG is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and its latest version 2.1. It is thereby not some EU created standard, rather one made by the same organization that also defines the rest of the internet. And unlike with GDPR, the EU is behind the US in this aspect. The US has been following these accessibility requirements for some time already. There are three classes of these requirements where A is the most important one and AA is next most important. There is also a least important AAA class and following those requirements are naturally highly recommended, but these are not required by law in the EU.
What changes should be made?
Web browsing is most challenging for blind or otherwise challenged people who cannot use the computer mouse and pointer or a touch screen on a handheld device. Most of these WCAG requirements are therefore focused on this. Blind people mostly browse the web using the keyboard and a screen reader. The Tab key moves the focus from one object on the web page to the next and the screen reader talks the text of that object. The Enter key is like a mouse click on that link or another object. This means that each object needs to have sufficient descriptions so that a good enough understanding of the site is gained just based on hearing these descriptions. And it is not just images that need such descriptions. Also, buttons need a text telling what that button does. A spoken description of a button could be “Button – Submit the form you just filled out and you thereby also approve that your personal data is being processed. This button will open a new browser page in the address …”
The whole page should have a clear enough structure making it easy to understand without seeing it. There should be topics using the standard H-tags. There also should be a secondary way to navigate the site like a sitemap for example, especially if the default navigation is more optimized for mouse pointer use. A good example of this is the commonly utilized mega menu that usually is challenging to use, if you cannot see it and how the menu reacts to your input. Additionally, the text needs sufficient colour contrast helping people whose vision is only partially challenged. A contrast of 3:1 is considered sufficient for bigger fonts, but the general 4.5:1 contrast is recommended for all text and active objects. And as already mentioned, adding translations of a web service also improves its accessibility.
What is in it for the rest of us?
This law will not only benefit blind people, simplifying it a bit. As already stated above, the web page needs to have a clear structure that is easy to understand. This is something that has already been improved in many web services with the enhancements adding handheld compatibility with responsive user interfaces etc. The law also sets requirements for data security, which we will not go into more in this text. The law additionally requires technically robust web services in general with a high browser and operating system compatibility. All this will improve the web browsing experience for all of us and above all those who may be less comfortable with web services and the modern digital world in general. It is therefore recommended to make also other web services accessible than just those of public administration. Get in touch with Wunder if you wish to make your web service more accessible either for legal reasons or just because that will widen your audience and improve your usability.