How will new digital accessibility regulations impact the eLearning sector?

eLearning professionals who understand the benefits of creating products and services which are accessible for everyone, including people with permanent, temporary or situational impairments, have long been disappointed by the lack of engagement with digital accessibility in the eLearning sector. But recent changes in UK and EU legislation maybe the key to ensuring that accessibility will soon be a subject that no one in the sector can afford to ignore.

So, what is the new legislation and why do many people believe that it is a ‘game-changer’ for the eLearning industry?

New UK digital accessibility regulations

The legislation originated from the EU Directive on the Accessibility of the Websites and Mobile Applications of Public Sector Bodies. This directive passed into the law of all EU member states on September 23rd, 2018 and in the case of the UK, will remain regardless of the outcome of Brexit. Each country has autonomy to monitor and enforce the legislation, but the regulations themselves are the same for every EU member state and for the UK.

  • What is the name of the new UK digital accessibility law?
    The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.
  • Who does it apply to?
    It applies to all public sector bodies, including higher and further education institutions and the NHS. It also includes charities or NGOs which are mostly financed by public funding, or provide services which are essential to the public or aimed at people with a disability. Charities which do not meet these requirements, schools or nurseries and public sector broadcasters and their subsidiaries, are exempt. There is also the qualification that organisations are exempt, if the impact of fully meeting the requirements is a “disproportionate burden,” i.e. too much for the organisation to reasonably cope with.
  • What does the law apply to?
    The law applies to websites, intranets and extranets including VLEs and LMSs, and any digital content held on them, including eLearning resources, Word documents, PDFs and presentations. It also applies to mobile applications. Some content is exempt, such as archives and office file formats published before 23rd September 2018. Live time-based media and online maps and reproductions of items in heritage collections are also exempt.
  • What must you do to comply with the law?
    To comply with the regulations all digital content must be accessible to the 50 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), version 2.1, Levels A and AA. All organisations must also produce an accessibility statement which details all of their sites and the accessibility of those sites. This statement must explain how the content is accessible, any accessibility issues and when they will be addressed. The statement must also give contact details for reporting any issues and, where appropriate, the availability of any accessible alternatives.
  • When is the deadline for compliance?
    For the majority of websites, the deadline for making all new content accessible is September 2020. An important exception is for externally facing websites created after September 23rd, 2018, which have the deadline of September 23rd, 2019 for all content. Mobile applications have the deadline of June 23rd, 2021.
  • Who will monitor and enforce the regulations?
    The Government Digital Service will monitor the regulations. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Great Britain and the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland will enforce them.

Disclaimer: This is an overview only and should not be considered legal advice.
For more detailed information see: The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018

Why the UK accessibility regulations are a ‘game-changer’.

While the new accessibility regulations only became law in September 2018, and we have yet to reach the end of the qualifying period for their implementation, they are likely to have a significant impact on the eLearning industry for many reasons

  • Public sector impact
    The regulations require that anyone who works in the public sector, or who supplies services to the sector, has a legal obligation to make their eLearning products and services accessible.
  • WCAG 2.1 A & AA standards
    The regulations establish the legal digital accessibility standard to be met. Although, the EU Directive itself refers to Regulation EN 301 549; it is widely accepted that this is in line with WCAG 2.1 A & AA standards. This effectively sets the benchmark for accessibility standards and clarifies exactly what is meant by eLearning accessibility.
  • Litigation
    In the UK, the current disability legislation is the Equality Act 2010, (although Northern Ireland still falls under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.) A key feature of the Equality Act is that it states that every organisation has an ‘anticipatory duty’ to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people. Despite the equality act, however, it has proved difficult for people to prove that organisations who do not provide accessible digital content are breaking the law. This has been partly due to a lack of clarity about reasonable adjustments. The legislation changes this in the public sector, by clearly defining that a failure to meet the new accessibility regulations, is a failure to meet reasonable adjustments. In the Higher Education sector in particular, institutions are very aware that the new regulations open them up to a much higher risk of litigation and reputational damage if they do not comply.
  • Customer awareness
    The new regulations mean that a vague understanding of accessibility regulations and how products and services comply, will soon no longer be adequate amongst eLearning vendors. In the public sector, many organisations are becoming more aware of their legal obligations and what conforming to accessibility regulations actually means. For example, members of the Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group (FHEDAWG) are formulating an online questionnaire for potential suppliers which asks detailed questions about conformance to WCAG 2.1, A and AA levels. They also suggest asking suppliers for demonstration versions of systems or services so that any claims about accessibility can be verified.

Another result of the new legislation is that customers understand that for suppliers, a commitment to digital accessibility should be seen not only as a requirement but also as an opportunity to gain a market advantage. This was identified recently by George Rhodes, Digital Accessibility Compliance Lead at Kent County Council.

“As we are only procuring accessible services from now on, we are on the lookout for conscientious suppliers who understand our accessibility requirements. Suppliers who engage now and grow their own skills are giving themselves an advantage in future tenders, framework applications, and improving their reputation.”

Are the regulations enough to engage the eLearning industry?

Maybe not. The two main reasons for this are that the regulations currently apply only to the public sector and that failing to comply won’t lead to a financial penalty. So unlike GDPR legislation which was highly effective due to the fact that it applied to all organisations and large fines were involved, the new accessibility regulations may not have nearly such an impact.

Yet many advocates believe that they are still a significant step in encouraging better engagement with accessibility in the eLearning industry. Combined with the many other compelling business and ethical reasons for digital inclusion and good practice shown in other industries, it seems more and more likely that the case for eLearning accessibility will very soon become impossible to ignore.

Sources:

  1.  EU Directive on the Accessibility of the Websites and Mobile Applications of Public Sector Bodies
  2. The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018
  3.  Regulation EN 301 549 V3.1.1 – PDF
  4.  UK Equality Act 2010
  5.  Disability Discrimination Act 1995
  6.  Using a service: reasonable adjustments for disabled people – Equality and Human Rights Commission guide
  7.  FHEDAWG – Find out more about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
  8.  Digital Accessibility Conference – University of Kent blog

About the author

Susi Miller is an Instructional Designer and eLearning Accessibility Consultant.

She started her company eLaHub (eLearning accessibility Hub) to help eLearning professionals understand and apply digital accessibility standards to eLearning.

Visit her website www.elahub.net to find out more about eLearning accessibility.

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