Public Sector accessibility regs are an opportunity and a threat

Thomas Edison was quoted as saying that “opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work”.

After all the furore and activity relating to GDPR coming into law, it is disappointing to note how low the visibility has been and still is for its poor relation – the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018. The regulations offer a great opportunity to effect culture change that will benefit all students.

The snappily named regulations came into effect in last September, amidst relative confusion around exemptions and requirements. Will institutions be getting their house in order ready for the next deliverable deadline imposed by the regs? Does anyone need a reminder of what this is again? It means publishing accessibility statements for their digital platforms.

Autumn is coming

This sounds like a fairly simple process, but how many institutions have this in hand ready for the September deadline? The model statement provided by GOV.UK makes pretty quick reading, but the ingredients to create a statement take some preparation, evaluation and organisation together with an ongoing execution plan for continuous improvement and cannot be dashed off in an afternoon and forgotten about.

If institutions decide to deprioritise complying with the timetable laid out in the regulations due to a perceived low likelihood of penalty, they may come unstuck. What may well be a new and energetic minister has powers to name and shame websites that don’t publish a statement, or meet accessibility guidelines.

For the first time UK law clearly states that if your website is not accessible, then this is a failure to make a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act. Additionally, and arguably more importantly, not doing so would mean missing a huge opportunity in terms of attracting and retaining disabled students, and raising attainment across the student base.

Access and participation

Whilst invaluable assistance is available in the form of DSAs and a range of in-house support services at universities, studying at a higher level is made more challenging for disabled students due to the inaccessibility of many platforms and online documents provided as resources to support their study. Non-continuation statistics for disabled students are higher than for non disabled students and therefore it is crucial that all efforts are made to make studying more accessible.

The DSA changes in 2016 removed centralised funding for some kinds of support and placed greater responsibility on institutions to create an inclusive learning environment. This was done fairly abruptly with limited guidance provided. The message was that inclusion is highly nuanced and “not a tick box exercise” – hence institutions could not be supplied with a checklist to implement this utopia. Whilst this is a factual statement, little did emerge in terms of guidance, but it was made clear that institutions were responsible under the Equality Act 2010 for delivering this for all students.

The weight of this responsibility often sits predominantly on disability support teams with the expectation that they will lead on this, but typically without provision of sufficient “teeth” to ensure that the broader staff are consistently making this live in lecture halls, on VLEs, in libraries and across the student services.

An opportunity for all

The regulations bring a great opportunity and a step by step roadmap for institutions to get their digital estate into good shape and focus their lecturing staff on creating content that is accessible to all. Accessibility helps everyone and reduces the need for individual reasonable adjustments and with the rise in mental health challenges amongst the student base, creating content that is perceivable, operable, understandable and robust seems like a no brainer, as does taking the opportunity of the advent of the regulations to bake this into the processes and culture of our universities.

The timetable provided is reasonable, and both the government and accessibility experts want to help organisations improve, not to penalise and find fault. The work needs to be done to improve the university experience of all students, and when we speak to staff on the ground there is rarely a lack of passion for or understanding of inclusion and accessibility for all.

For those working in the sector that are concerned about how this is progressing (or not) in your institution, ask the question as loud and as often as you can – who is the sponsor on the senior team responsible for making this happen? Whether this is clear and defined often determines whether progress is swift and in good spirit or painfully slow and inconsistent. If you are on the senior team, put yours or someone else’s hand up and grab this opportunity as it brings nothing but reward and an improved learning environment for all.

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