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Public sector websites are failing accessibility testing - here's how they can improve. By Hilary Stephenson.

OVER recent months, it's become more and more evident that a number of public sector websites are not welcoming, nor particularly usable, for users with disabilities. At the start of the year, the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) tested the accessibility of 416 council websites - a third failed the test. In March, we decided it was time to test the accessibility and usability of 10 of the UK's top housing association websites. The majority of these also scored badly.

These failings come following legislation enacted last year from the European Commission which ruled all public sector websites and mobile applications in Europe must, by law, become more accessible. And yet not every public sector website, in spite of growing pressure and legal obligations, is meeting accessibility expectations.

But, firstly, what is web accessibility and why does it matter?

Web accessibility is the assurance that people with disabilities, regardless of whether these are physical, cognitive, visual or auditory, have the opportunity to interact with and contribute to the internet. Websites that incorporate accessibility bolster inclusivity, while providing greater equality when it comes to opportunity for those with disabilities. Web accessibility also benefits those with temporary or progressive conditions whose needs and abilities change and vary over time.

Ensuring greater accessibility online is rapidly growing in importance; Britain has an ageing population and this has a direct correlation with the rising number of people with disabilities. Add to this the public sector's push towards increased digitalisation - the Government is actively making strides towards becoming "digital by default" and a growing number of public services are being moved online. It's now possible to pay council tax or apply for certain benefits, such as jobseeker's allowance, online, making it crucial for public sector organisations to ensure these services are accessible to all.

Hillary Stephenson, Sigma.

Improving web accessibility in the public sector

Progress on the accessibility front has traditionally been slower in the public sector, largely down to funding. To create a more accessible website, it's important to realise the upfront cost is modest in comparison to the return on investment - accessible websites are easier to run while catering to a wider, and growing, audience. Websites with greater accessibility also look pretty great - good examples include the Arts Council and Citizens Advice Bureau websites.

Designing for accessibility can feel like a minefield, so for public sector organisations unsure about where to start, here are some practical, disability-specific tips for improving web accessibility:

Users with low vision

Ensuring your website follows a linear, logical layout where text flows and is visible when magnified is key. Buttons and notifications must be put in context, while a readable font should be used. It's also important to avoid only using colour to convey meaning.

Users with autism

The website's appearance must be kept simple, consistent and straightforward - avoiding the use of bright contrasting colours and opting for content written in simple sentences, avoiding idioms and figures of speech. Buttons should be descriptive and walls of text and cluttered layouts must not be used.

Users with dyslexia

Text should be aligned to the left and the content should be concise, clear and simple with images and diagrams to support the text. Being able to change the colour contrast between the text and background is also helpful for these users. Avoid underlining words, writing in capitals or using italics for emphasis and avoid putting too much information in the one place.

Users who are deaf or hard of hearing

Ensuring a site has a linear layout is important for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, as is writing text in plain English. For any video or audio content, transcripts or subtitles must be provided, while long blocks of content should be avoided. When it comes to communication methods, users should be given a choice; organisations must ensure telephone contact isn't the only means offered.

Users with a physical or motor disability

Websites should include large, clickable actions that are spaced out rather than crowded together. Shortcuts must be provided for ease of access, while dynamic content that involves a lot of mouse movement or webpages that require a lot of scrolling should be avoided.

At Sigma, we work closely with public sector organisations that understand the importance and value of catering for users with accessibility challenges, offering them a range of services including accessibility website and application audits, as well as awareness workshops in partnership with Molly Watt, founder of the Molly Watt Trust, who lives with Usher Syndrome which affects her hearing and sight. We look at the areas of concern, advise where there is room for improvement, give organisations better insights into how their website is used by those with disabilities and then assist them in creating a more accessible web presence.

For organisations willing to make a change for the better, clearly there are a number of things they can do to improve the experience of users on their websites who are faced with accessibility challenges. In the face of further cuts, it's highly likely the already overstretched public sector will continue to move its services online to save on costs, which means now is the time to review and to make changes to ensure these are accessible to all.

If you're interested in finding out more about accessibility and other user experience related topics, you can attend our Camp Digital conference in May. More information here: www.wearesigma.com/campdigital

Hilary Stephenson is managing director of digital user experience (UX) agency Sigma.