Making Public Sector Websites Accessible: The Key Findings of Ireland’s Latest Monitoring Report
The recent introduction of the Web Accessibility Directive has brought about changes in the law and obliged all public sector bodies across Ireland to comply with WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards. The National Disability Authority (NDA) has been appointed as Ireland’s monitoring body to ensure compliance with the Directive. As part of this, the NDA must not only periodically monitor the compliance of the websites and mobile applications of public bodies but also submit a report to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment detailing the outcome of the monitoring it has carried out. In December 2021, the NDA submitted and published its first monitoring report. This blog offers a breakdown of the report’s key findings.
The NDA conducted both in-depth and simplified reviews of websites and mobile applications across various public sector bodies. In-depth reviews examine compliance with WCAG 2.1 A and AA Success Criteria using mainly manual tests on a sample of websites, mobile applications, and web pages. The NDA carried out a total of 3,675 tests on 5 websites across 75 web pages as well as on 2 mobile applications. In contrast, simplified reviews examine instances of noncompliance across a larger number of websites and web pages using automated tests. Simplified reviews across 40,373 web pages on 50 websites were carried out.
The websites and mobile applications reviewed were selected on the basis that they were sites regularly accessed and used by people with disabilities. Nevertheless, the NDA found that there were large variances in the levels of compliance with the Directive across them. Moreover, even on websites where care and attention were obviously given to accessibility, many errors existed, with 83.5% of the 40,373 webpages subject to a simplified review containing accessibility errors.
It must, however, be noted that many of the errors identified could be easily addressed and are likely a result of the fact many public sector sites may not yet be subject to continuous accessibility checks and reviews.
The NDA found that no public body whose website or application was subject to an in-depth review had received complaints concerning accessibility issues with their website or mobile application. Nevertheless, the NDA recommends that accessibility statements – one which it advises be developed, published and easily accessible on all public sector websites – indicate clear and accessible channels for feedback and complaint. Moreover, any complaints received by public sector bodies concerning their compliance with the Directive should be recorded and addressed.
Almost 39% of the errors identified by the NDA when conducting simplified reviews relate to colour contrast. The majority of these errors occurred in common page elements, for example, headers or footers, which form part of the website’s template design. Many of these shortcomings can be easily remedied by fixing errors in the website’s template. The NDA recommends that public bodies develop a review process that can be utilised to periodically check the accessibility of their websites and prioritise the remediation of issues with the sites’ template designs.
The NDA found that many websites were successful in providing alternative (alt) text for images, logos, and graphs. Nevertheless, the in-depth reviews revealed that missing or poor alt text occurs sporadically in the body of pages which indicates an accessibility review is perhaps not part of the process leading to the publication of new content. The NDA recommends that this be changed and that all new content published to public bodies’ websites or mobile applications be reviewed for accessibility.
The reviews carried out by the NDA found that the accessibility of forms varied across websites. For a form to be considered accessible, all form elements (e.g. buttons, text boxes and dropdown menus) must have clearly coded names and roles. The NDA recommends that all forms be accessible and advises that accessibility experts’ support may be required to ensure that forms and online services are accessible from beginning to end.
The in-depth reviews carried out by the NDA suggested that add-ons (e.g. cookie banners, feedback widgets or accessibility plugins) may significantly reduce the accessibility of public sector websites and applications. The NDA recommends that the accessibility of any new features and functionality, especially those implemented by the addition of third-party plugins, is checked before their implementation.
The simplified reviews found that almost 25% of errors identified were related to PDFs. PDFs are widely used across public sector bodies; however, the NDA recommends that PDF forms be avoided for all online services and accessible HTML be used instead. It suggests that accessibility be considered at the earliest stages of content creation and that the accessibility features and checkers offered by office application software, for example, MS Word and PowerPoint be utilised.
The monitoring report has revealed that there is still progress to be made to ensure compliance with the Directive. Furthermore, extensive manual testing is also needed to find problems that would affect the end user experience, such as confusing navigation and incorrect focus order. Although many of the surface-level issues identified by the NDA are quick fixes for public sector bodies, their remediation will, nevertheless, make a big difference to the lives of those with a disability.