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Accessibility and the Single Government Domain

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accessibility, GOV.UK

Hello! I'm Léonie Watson. I'm working with Government Digital Service (GDS) on the accessibility of the beta site. This is the first of a series of accessibility focused posts I'll be putting together over the next few months.

I must admit I’m not one for dwelling on the past. I believe it’s important to learn from history, but I also know you can’t change it. Accessibility was the topic of much discussion in the days before and after the alpha site was launched. Now I hope we can refocus that discussion on the beta site and everything we’re doing there instead.

Tom Loosemore has said: “…we want to make the most easy to use, accessible government website there has ever been”. Those of you who know something about web development on this scale will understand what a challenge that is. Those of you who know me will also recognise it’s a goal I thoroughly believe in.

So, what are we doing to achieve that goal?

Simply put, we’re planning accessibility in from the outset and documenting the accessibility steps we take throughout the website’s lifetime. It’s a process we’ll take beyond launch, as we continue to gather feedback and evolve the beta site.

We’re following British Standard (BS)8878 Web Accessibility Code of Practice from the British Standards Institution (BSI). BS8878 defines a process for making web accessibility a core component of an organisation’s activities, so it gives us a practical starting point.

We’re inviting people with disabilities to take part in our regular testing sessions. There isn’t a substitute for learning from people’s first hand experiences, so this will be a really valuable source of feedback for us.

We’re talking to people (lots of people). Accessibility isn’t something that can be achieved in isolation, so we’re reaching out to people with knowledge, experience and personal insight!

  • We’ve contacted members of the eAccessibility Forum to ask for their insights, suggestions and advice;
  • We’re meeting with representatives from different disability organisations, to learn from their knowledge and experience;
  • We’re talking to accessibility professionals from academia, industry and government, so we can draw on their collective wisdom;
  • We're engaging in dialogue via this blog, based on your (very welcome) feedback and comments.

We have already had a tremendous response from many people. One person who has given us some insight into the experiences of people with learning disabilities, made an interesting point. He said: “At the end of the day, I’m a UK citizen. If I help to create an inclusive experience, it will benefit me directly as well as everyone else”.

We may not end up with a perfect 10 for accessibility. I’m enough of a realist to know that few websites launch in a perfect state, irrespective of accessibility or not. I do know that Tom, Paul, Rich, Josh, and all the others including myself, are determined to create a website that’s practical, useful and usable for everyone.

Photo credit: Paul Downey

Léonie Watson is Accessibility Consultant at GDS. You can follow @LeonieWatson on Twitter, and read her personal blog.

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  1. Comment by Alex Keen posted on

    Dear GDS - following a question raised yesterday in the Communications team at VOSA, we would like to have the opportunity to upload YouTube video content on GOV.UK to enhance the experience of people reading and uploading VOSA-related guides and content. A suggestion would be a link to the video content on the right-hand side of the guide under 'Other relevant links'. We believe that you used to offer this functionality but was removed at some point before the site became live.

  2. Comment by Gov UK: cyfle @ybwrdd i adael etifeddiaeth | Hacio'r Iaith posted on

    [...] Hmmm. Llynedd gwnes i ofyn am ddarpariaeth Gymraeg ac yn ôl y sôn maen nhw yn siarad â Bwrdd yr Iaith a.... [...]

  3. Comment by User testing accessibility | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] more expert help we could get, the better the final product we could deliver. To that end we asked Léonie Watson from Nomensa to help us. She is a recognised expert in the accessibility field, and we’ve [...]

  4. Comment by Lynn Zelvin posted on

    One gap I don't ever seem to see addressed is the intersection between an accessible web site and general access to services. For example, in NY state, I was directed to a 508-compliant accessible on-line form to request a fair hearing, but the form asks for a mailing address with no place to indicate what format the mail should be in. In that particular case, I found a place meant for something else to try to request accessible correspondance, only to receive a phone call from someone telling me there were no options except to put me down as illiterate and send my mail to someone else to read it to me. this communications gap is the rule, not the exception, and more critical in most cases than the readability of the web site.

  5. Comment by Darpariaeth Cymraeg a’r uber-safle Llywodraeth DU | Hacio'r Iaith posted on

  6. Comment by Carl Morris posted on

    Hi Léonie

    On the theme of accessibility what is the language policy of GDS projects?

    I'd particularly like to know about offering the services in Welsh - Directgov has offered some for a while, now will it be possible to use the single domain services in Welsh?


    • Replies to Carl Morris>

      Comment by Tony Singleton posted on

      Hi Carl

      We are working with the Welsh Language Board and Welsh Assembly on agreeing a Welsh Language Policy for the single domain.

      • Replies to Tony Singleton>

        Comment by Carl Morris posted on

        Tony, thanks for the quick reply. In the post above Léonie mentions that you are engaging in dialogue. I am keen to be part of the dialogue and offer feedback if you're considering a blog post in future - along with other users I am sure.

  7. Comment by Léonie Watson posted on

    Hello Keith,

    You should be able to access a full copy of BS8878 from your nearest library. I'm not sure whether it's available as a reference work, or whether it's part of the lending library, but either way it's available at no cost.


  8. Comment by Lucy Dodd (@InclusiveExper) posted on

    Well done Leonie. I look forward to watching the progress.

  9. Comment by MJ Ray posted on

    Maybe you're "not one for dwelling on the past" but alphagov failed horribly and - worse - you still seem to be failing to acknowledge that it failed. The message I took from alphagov was: no, we don't want people like you to test this, we don't care about your sort of feedback, the nicest newest bits of UKGov are not for cripples like you and we don't care about the spirit of the Equality Act. Despite that lock-out, accessibility was still number 5 on the top 10 problems, which is amazing and somewhat heart-warming.

    Has this changed? Would the team please publicly say that you were wrong to argue that it's easier to exclude people? Maybe by putting an update on the earlier post titled "Accessibility"?

    You've been offered more help on that earlier post: I'd take that up if you haven't already done so.

    @KeithEmmerson: if an organisation is strapped for cash, the earlier PAS78 is available cost-free from and may help them make a start.

    • Replies to MJ Ray>

      Comment by Paul Annett posted on

      Thanks for your comment, MJ.

      Far from failing horribly, Alphagov was a success as a proof of concept. The fact that it received ministerial approval to go forward to beta development was among the success criteria, and it passed with flying colours. We wouldn't be where we are now if it had failed.

      With the benefit of hindsight, we could have made a better job of communicating the purpose of the prototype. How many other prototypes are ever fully accessible? It's impossible to know, because normally they're locked behind closed doors and are never seen by people with access needs. We made the bold move of making an incomplete prototype public with the explicit acknowledgement that it wouldn't comply to any accessibility standards, and we paid the price in the eyes of the accessibility community.

      We are sorry for any misunderstanding, and we're moving on with expertise in place within the team, connections to disability organisations, and the reassurance that the beta will have accessibility at its core. When Léonie joined she commented that development on the accessibility of the beta so far was some of the best that she's ever come across (she uses a screen-reader).

      I hope you'll be pleasantly surprised when you see what we're working on now, and we'd love to have your support as we continue working towards the beta release.

    • Replies to MJ Ray>

      Comment by Lucy Dodd (@InclusiveExper) posted on

      MJ Ray, I think your comment reflects the disappointment felt by many users when AlphaGov was launched but I have to agree with Leonie. Public apologies and acknowledgement of failure are not necessary or particularly useful when trying to move on and make things better. There is no point picking over the bones, pointing fingers or analysing the whys and wherefores.

      The fact that the team have asked Leonie to come in and get this project back on track shows that mistakes have been acknowledged and now they wish for a positive route forward.

      I was one of the users who focalised my disappointment on the AlphaGov blog and I stand by the comments I made. However, I am very pleased that mine and others have been taken on board and something is now being done.

      I look forward to watching the site develop into "the most easy to use, accessible government website there has ever been”.

      • Replies to Lucy Dodd (@InclusiveExper)>

        Comment by Léonie Watson posted on

        Hello Lucy,

        Thanks for your words of encouragement, and for the time you've taken to talk to me, and share some really constructive feedback over the past few weeks.

        I hope others will also be encouraged. I've worked on the web for 15 years, most of them on the accessibility side of things. That doesn't mean I have all the answers, but it I am willing to listen and learn from anyone with the time to explain a particular perspective.

        Thanks again Lucy.

  10. Comment by Lee Alley posted on

    Interestingly, after looking at this page's code, there is meta-info for some links but not others (a quick look seems to show title="" tags for certain content areas' links only). Why the difference? And wouldn't all links (or really users needing meta information) benefit from link descriptions so as not to waste time going up content cul-de-sacs? Or is it a WordPress thing - it can only handle some meta info in some widgets but not others?

    Just a thought....

    • Replies to Lee Alley>

      Comment by Léonie Watson posted on

      Hello Lee,

      The blog arrived a bit before my time on the project so I'm not sure of the details. It's based on the Linen theme from We're not able to change the HTML, but I understand we've been working with the developers of the original theme to recommend changes, and they've been very receptive.

      What's your view on using the title attribute on links? Do you think they're helpful? Responses to this question are often quite varied.

  11. Comment by Simon Dickson posted on

    Keith makes an interesting point here, and it's one I'd like to develop.

    As you've noted, accessibility is very hard to get right: you're conceding that you might not even score a 'perfect 10', even though you're 'planning [it] in from the outset'. And as Keith says, for small organisations, it's prohibitively expensive to even buy the rulebook, before you even begin to implement the rules.

    If government is hiring experts, consulting widely with users, and (hopefully) delivering exemplary results, it seems like a tragic waste for the benefits to be locked into a single website.

    Wouldn't it be fantastic if one of the outputs from your work were to be a reusable, customisable front-end theme for an open-source, widely-used publishing platform, like WordPress or Drupal? You could enforce certain 'must have' accessibility practices in the page templates, whilst still giving people plenty of scope to make it 'look and feel' like their own site - via a parent/child theme arrangement, or a 'theme options' screen.

    You could then release that theme publicly - giving web developers everywhere a robust base on which to build their sites. Imagine all those common accessibility headaches being solved, before the first line of custom code is written.

    (I'm not suggesting this would solve all problems instantly, of course. And there's still plenty of scope to cause all sorts of new problems in, say, a child theme's CSS. But you'd certainly be giving people one heck of a head start.)

    The fact is, very few organisations have any real motivation to get accessibility right. But Government has a moral obligation to do so. And you're spending our taxes to do it... so I'd argue we all have a right to enjoy the fruits of that labour. Central and local government, public and private sector.

    Issuing a list of rules seems a very old-fashioned way to encourage / enforce good practice. You have an opportunity here, to do something much smarter than that.

  12. Comment by Keith Emmerson (@KeithEmmerson) posted on

    It's a shame that BS8878 is so inaccessible to small orgs and the like with a £100 fee just to purchase the code. The alternative is a £4,740 set of explanatory documents from AbilityNet.

    I'm looking forward to the rest of your posts!