Digital accessibility for government communicators

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) points: 2

This webinar was recorded in July 2021. It is an updated version of the ‘Digital accessibility for government communicators’ webinar published in May 2020.


Learn all about the new digital accessibility requirements and how to make your digital communications accessible.

Delivered by: Richard Morton, Head of Accessibility at Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and Nancy Hull, Campaigns and Communications Manager at Government Digital Service (GDS).

Watch the webinar

[Richard Morton] So, welcome, everyone. I’m going to talk about accessible digital communications.

I’m Richard Morton and I’m Head of Accessibility at the Central Digital and Data Office for CDDO. It’s part of Cabinet Office. CDDO’s part of Cabinet Office, and we leave the digital data and technology function to government. 

We exist to put the right conditions in place to achieve digital data and technology transformation at scale, by working with departments and other government functions like commercial, project delivery and security professionals.

I was in GDS but the functions, accessibility, had actually moved to the new CDDO department or organisation. So there’s no change really in what we do.

So, here to talk to you about the digital accessibility regulations and how they impact your work as communicators.

Before we get started, I just want to give a quick overview of what we’ll talk about in this session. First, we’ll cover digital accessibility and why it’s important. Then, I’ll talk a little bit about the digital accessibility regulations. And then my colleague, Nancy, will go through some tips on how you can make your communications more accessible. And there should be some time to answer questions.

And as [__] said, please raise questions through the chat panel.

So, what is accessibility? Well, accessibility means ensuring your services and content can be used and understood by the widest possible audience. In the UK, at least 1 in 5 people have a long-term illness, impairment or disability. And many more have a temporary or situational disability. This means it’s our responsibility as communicators to make sure we remove as many barriers or obstacles to accessing information and services as possible.

Everything we create must be accessible to everyone, regardless of whether or not they have impairments in any of these areas. The areas of vision, hearing, speech, motor or cognitive, or it could be a combination of them.

For example, this means we must make sure that you don’t need to rely on sight alone to understand communications material. The text and the information should be accessible to a screen reader, which is a piece of software that’s used to read out text on the website for someone who is visually impaired. Similarly, we shouldn’t rely on people being able to hear the audio of a film or animation and should caption text.

It’s important to remember as well that impairments aren’t always permanent. People sometimes temporarily don’t have use of one or more of their senses due to something like illness or injury, such as in this example, having an ear infection, burst drum or a cold.

And we must also consider people who don’t have full access to things through their senses because of the situation they’re in. It might be in a noisy environment that prevents you being able to hear as clearly. User needs need to be considered and met, whether an impairment or disability is permanent, temporary or situational.

How you make things accessible and fix things isn’t related directly to whether it’s a permanent situation or temporary disability. Accessibility isn’t something new for CDDO and GDS. It’s built into our design standards and ways of working. But making online services accessible to all isn’t just something we’re passionate about, it’s also the law.

I wanted to talk a bit about accessibility and what laws are around this. Firstly, the Equality Act 2010. As it says on the slide, it reads, we have a legal obligation to provide equal access to people with disabilities. Now for Northern Ireland, this is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, but it’s pretty much identical in terms of what’s in that act regarding disabled people.

Inequality Act 2010. It says that public authorities must comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty. This means that the public organisations like central and local government, health care, education and many others must think about the needs of people who are disadvantaged or suffer inequality when they make decisions about how they provide services and how to implement policies. So, there are new accessibility regulations.

While the 2010 and 1995 laws have been in place for some time, there are new regulations that public organisations must follow. These don’t replace or supersede the Equality Act or the Public Sector Equality Duty though. They’re in addition to it, and they build on it. And these are known as The Public Sector Bodies (Website and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018. That’s a bit of a mouthful so I’ll just call them the Accessibility Regulations from now on. They mean that public sector organisations have a legal obligation to make their websites and mobile apps accessible to people with disabilities.

Public sector are obliged to do following. They need to meet the latest version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines known as WCAG. Version 2.1 is the latest version. They need to meet that at level AA, and I’ll explain a little more on that in a moment.

They need to make sure that websites and apps and documents are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. And they need to publish an accessibility statement. And this will make clear the level of accessibility across the sites or app or the groups of documents. And I’ll speak a bit more about that later as well in the section.

Some organisations are exempt, including non-government organisations like charities, unless they’re mostly financed by public funding, provide services that are essential to the public or aimed at disabled people. But even if they are exempt, the Equality Act still applies.

So, what is WCAG? Understanding WCAG. WCAG is a set of the recognised guidelines. So that stand for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines can be followed to help make components on a website accessible.

They’ve broken down these guidelines in 3 different levels. Level A is for websites with the most basic web accessibility features. Level AA is for websites that tackle the most common barriers for disabled users. And level AAA is for sites with the highest and most complex level of web accessibility.

Just to remind you, the standard required for the new regulations WCAG 2.1 level AA, which includes level A and level AA.

There are important dates for these regulations. The timeline for the regulations are shown on this slide. Websites and documents published on or after 23rd of September 2018 already have to be compliant as of September 2019. So, that includes anything newly created or published from now. It has to meet regulations.

Existing websites and documents that were published before the 23rd of September 2018 had to be compliant by 23rd of September 2020. And mobile apps had to be compliant by the 23rd of June 2021, which obviously has now gone. So, all those deadlines have now passed. So, all websites, apps and documents need to be accessible from now on.

There are 4 actions that an organisation needs to take to make sure their compliance. That’s if you’re in scope of the regulations.

Firstly, you need to understand how the regulations will impact you. You’re likely to be impacted if you manage a website or mobile app or publish content to GOV.UK. You need to check the accessibility of your website or app or published documents by carrying out an accessibility audit.

It’s important to engage with your digital team or accessibility champions, if you have them, for support on conducting an accessibility audit. Alternatively, you can commission professional advice and audits through the digital marketplace, for example. You need to make a plan to fix any issues that come out of the accessibility audit.

And you need to publish an accessibility statement. Accessibility statements are one of the key requirements of the new regulations, and there’s certain things that need to be in that statement. It must include things like how accessibility was evaluated, the level of compliance, known issues, how users can get accessible alternatives, a feedback mechanism and how to contact the enforcement body. And importantly, it must be regularly updated, as in when you make changes to website, significant changes.

We would advise you revisit statement at least once a year, but obviously more often if you make regular substantial changes, particularly around templates and things like that, not just content. As there is quite a lot in that statement, that needs to be in, there is a sample statement on GOV.UK that can be used as a template to help write your own. And in fact, there are lots of resources available to you to be compliant. CDDO has published guidance and other resources, as well as a link to the regulations through this site, which is: So, that links to all those resources including a template and the regulations and other advice on how to make things accessible.

CDDO also has a role in making sure compliance with the regulations happens. So we monitor public sector websites, documents and mobile apps for accessibility. CDDO has been chosen to do this as we are a leader in online accessibility.

We’re also responsible for enforcing the requirement to publish accessibility statements. What does that mean? Well, it is a big job to undertake. We’ve identified tens of thousands of public sector websites so far, and there are new ones being created every day. We have to test a sample of websites, and that number of samples is based on the population size of the UK. We enforce the requirements for published accessibility statements, as I mentioned, and our findings are reported to the minister for the Cabinet Office, they’re shared with enforcement bodies and they will be published online.

So, while CDDO is the reporting and monitoring body, enforcement of the law is carried out by two different bodies, which is the Equality and Human Rights Commission, if you are in Great Britain, and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland relating to Northern Ireland organisations.

So, what happens if people don’t comply? Well, what it means is that the enforcement bodies can use their existing legal powers under the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, under which they can launch investigations, issue unlawful act notices and take court action against offending organisations.

So just want to remind you that all of this work, past and present, means that our work should be accessible. It’s always trying to improve things and make things more accessible. We have to do this to make sure that things work for everyone. That’s all of our users, including the most vulnerable.

So, I’ll now hand over to my colleague, Nancy, who will talk about how to make communications more accessible.

[Nancy] Hi, everyone. My name is Nancy and I work at Government Digital Service in the communications team. I currently manage the Accessibility Regulations campaign. GDS is also part of the Cabinet Office, and we deliver products and platforms and services that help Government be more joined up, trusted and responsive to user need. We work very closely with CDDO to help government transformation.

It’s likely that many of you here aren’t responsible for building and maintaining the technical aspects of your organisation’s websites or apps, but accessibility isn’t just about the technical architecture. As communicators, we need to make sure that the content we create and publish is accessible too. And that’s really exciting. Making content accessible doesn’t mean compromising on your messaging or your design. If anything, accessibility strengthens our work.

I wanted to share with you some simple practices that you can introduce to your teams to make sure that your content can be perceived and understood by the widest possible audience.

Language and structure. When writing content, it’s important to consider the different reading levels of the public. The average reading age in the UK is nine years old. Long sentences can be complicated and confusing. It’s best to try and stick to 25 words per sentence or to put it another way, sentences that people can say in one breath. Walls of text can also be tricky to read, especially on mobile devices, and can be really off-putting. We recommend using no more than five lines per paragraph.

With this in mind, we’ll do our first exercise together. In the chat, can you tell me what this sentence is trying to say?

It is a simple fact that constantly observing cold water rising in temperature until it arrives at the boiling point of 100 degrees will not, in fact, make it come to that temperature any faster than, say, staring at the nearest wallpaper. So, this is the sentence simplified. Water does not boil faster if you watch it heat up. People with a low reading age can understand the first version of the sentence, but it’s long and complicated and makes them do a lot of work to understand what it means. This simplified version helps promote the understanding and makes it much easier on the reader.

Now, onto headings and subtitles. When structuring content on a website or within a document, many of us are guilty of using font size and making things bold to create headers or to break up sections. But these aren’t understood by screen readers, one of the most commonly used assistive technologies. Using the correct page structures to format your content helps us, using screen readers, to understand the layout of a document and navigate it more easily.

Each document or page should have one heading a H1 and subheadings, H2 or H3, et cetera, and can be used to provide structure after that. You can find and edit the pre-formatted headings and subheadings within the format tab of most programs, whether it’s Microsoft Word, Google Documents or the majority of website content management systems.

It’s also important that you use a sensible font size. You need to use your own judgment when deciding which font size to use, taking into account the style of font and the type of content that you are producing. For example, 12-point text may be large enough for a web page, however on Instagram or Facebook story it’s difficult to read. As a guide at GCS we recommend using a minimum point size of 12 for a document and 32 for presentations.

Now onto link text. Link text is a hyperlink. There are simple things you can do to make them accessible. Link text should be meaningful and make sense without context of surrounding content. You need to always tell users where they’re going and why, when they click on something.

Screen readers usually pull lists of links that are existing on a Web page and read them all out. So, if they’re labelled ‘click here’, it’s very hard for people to know where which link goes or what it will help them to do. To meet WCAG 2.1 AA standards, you must make sure that all links stand out from other text by underlining them and making the colour significantly different.

In terms of colour selection, you’ll need to make sure that at least a three to one colour ratio between the linked text and the rest of the content. I’ll touch on the colour ratios in more detail later on in the session.

As a general rule, link text starts with a verb, if you’re asking people to do something and if you’re linking to information, link directly over the text that describes the information, as you can see in these examples. Here are common examples of good, bad and ugly link text that I’m sure you’ve all come across and may have been guilty of in the past. I know that we have.

So next, we’re onto document formats. Any content being published to websites should be published in HTML by default. When sharing an attachment, open document formats are the best option for this format and is compatible with most applications. Not everybody has Microsoft Word or Google Docs, for example.

PDF should only be used for printed document. However, there are situations where you need to upload a PDF or being forced to open a PDF by someone in your organisation. You should publish them as an additional document. A HTML version should always be published as the default.

So, what is so bad about PDFs? PDFs are created to be printed so they’re not built to be read on screens. This means they aren’t responsive, which can make them challenging to open on a mobile and means that they aren’t compatible with screen magnification software. And they aren’t usually structured, so it can be difficult for screen readers users to navigate.

Now let’s talk about colour. Colour can be used in communication to add emphasis and to engage, but should not be used in isolation to convey a key message. Let’s do another example to explain this point. Do you think these buttons are accessible? You can tell me in the chat if you think they are.

So, the answer is that they are accessible as they aren’t relying on colour to convey a message. The colour here is just used for emphasis. If you take away the colour, the message can still be understood. However, if the text is taken away, the buttons is not accessible as the colour is being used to convey the message. People who are colour blind or from cultures where red means stop, green means go isn’t a cultural norm will not understand your message in this scenario. Colour contrast is another WCAG requirement that is important for accessibility.

You must make sure there is sufficient contrast between colour of your text and the background that it’s on. WCAG guidelines state that you should have a minimum ratio of 4.5 to 1. Working out the ratio is tricky, so you will need to use a piece of software to check it. There are free tools that can be used to check the contrast colours. We use a contrast colour that was developed by an ex-colleague at GDS.

Here is an example of what it looks like to use a colour contrast checker. You fire in the Pantone codes you’re planning to use, and it tells you whether they meet or do not meet the recommended contrast ratios. Here is an example of colour contrast that fails WCAG standards. The orange and white combinations have a low colour contrast, making it difficult to read the content. But here is an example of good colour contrast. The green background with white text has a contrast ratio slightly above the recommended minimum of four point five to one.

So, next onto images, videos and podcasts.

First up, let’s cover alt text. Alt text is used to describe an image. It’s read by software for visually impaired users and displays when an image doesn’t load. Alt text should be used on websites, social media and even in presentations like this one.

In the chat, would you be able to tell me what you think would make good alt text for this image? So, an example of alt text description for this image would be ‘pancakes’. Unless there is a need to provide a detailed description of the image, it’s not always necessary to include lengthy alt descriptions.

That said, it’s also important to remember that images can also convey context. For example, if the piece was about the importance of balanced school meals, the blueberries would hold a greater significance. It’s important to keep alt text short and simple, including only the information the users need to know about the message the image is conveying. This means you needn’t include things like ‘picture of’ or ‘image of’ in your description. It is also important that you add alt text to design elements like buttons when creating marketing emails, for example.

So, moving on to subtitles and captions. If you’re not sure on the difference, subtitles are part of the video, so can’t be switched off, whereas closed captions are optional and can therefore be turned on or off. Closed captions are offer users more choice so you can turn them on or off, and some browsers allow you to customise how they are displayed.

When you’re creating yours, use an accessible font like Arial and check that the text is large enough for it to be legible. You must also make sure there is sufficient colour contrast between the text and the subtitle background, which is the banner that sits around the text. It’s best to stick with the default caption colour pairing, which is usually white text on black or grey background.

To improve the readability of subtitles further, you should also make sure there’s sufficient padding. Padding is the space between the text and the background edge. Most of you will probably not change the padding on preset subtitles, which is great, but if you do like to, we advise aiming for at least a third colour padding around your subtitle.

Now on to video animations and GIFs. A video description should be available for all videos without audio. It doesn’t need to be complex. This body of text should use plain English to describe key visual elements in the videos. So users who cannot watch video’s content can have the same information as someone who can. Make sure you include a voiceover.

Something I see on social media a lot is videos with subtitles, but no voiceover. It’s great for people who can see the content, but if someone is visually impaired, you would need some captions, subtitles and voiceover. If you’re using a backing track on your video, there needs to be clear distinction between this and any other audio. Work to a minimum of 20 decibels difference between background music and voiceovers.

It’s also important to leave in this transition time between scenes in videos and GIFs so the audience can follow your content. The transition speed will be dictated by the type of content and whether there’s text that needs to be read. As a guide, the average person reads about 200 to 250 words a minute.

Flashing images are also to be avoided as they can cause seizures. WCAG requirements outline that web pages should not contain anything that flashes more than three times a second.

If your team creates podcasts, remember to publish a transcript with the content and don’t forget to publish the transcript in HTML or embed it within the web page. PDFs aren’t helpful at this point.

Now, onto social media posts. Many tips we’ve shared will inform and apply to the content of your social media accounts. However, there are a few additional things we want to talk to you about.

The first is to limit your hashtags. Maybe two per post, and this will improve the flow of the text. It’s also helpful to capitalise the first letter of individual words to improve on readability and to ensure screen readers to understand the content. This is called camel case.

People who navigate by keyboard shortcuts often find it frustrating to navigate multiple links. So, we recommend you limit links to one per social media post.

Alt text is a feature on most social media platforms now. Use this as you would images elsewhere. It takes seconds, but makes a really big difference to users. What else? So, don’t rely on images alone to convey your campaign’s key messages. Make sure they are included in post copy as well, so they are accessible to those using screen readers.

If you can, it’s best to avoid quote images or PDF uploads entirely as they aren’t accessible to those using assistive technologies. If there are occasions that you need to include them in social media posts showing an open letter that is a PDF, for example, it’s important that you provide a text alternative. Ideally within the post itself but, if not, in an immediate reply to the post or a link to page.

Most social media networks now have built in accessibility features. Make sure you switch these on and familiarise yourself with these features.

And finally, we’re constantly communicating with audiences via surveys, email marketing and job adverts. I’d encourage you to take the time to review the different channels and software that you’re using and how you can how you can take small steps to make them more accessible. After all, the success of communications and campaigns lays in engaging with the audience. And the first step is making sure that they can access and understand all the messages in order to take action.

So, does anyone have any questions that they like to put in the chat?

[Richard] I’m just going to stop the recording here now, Nancy. So, if people want to ask questions face to face, that’s fine too. 

Learning objectives

In this webinar, you will learn:

  • the new accessibility requirements for all government digital communications
  • how to go about ensuring your digital communications meet those standards

Next steps

The full name of the accessibility regulations is the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

Learn more about accessibility: