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GOV.UK accessibility: beyond box-ticking

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: GDS team

Last year we decided to drop the accessibility statement from GOV.UK. This week I was asked whether this decision sent out the wrong message to organisations wanting to make a public commitment to becoming accessible. So now seems like a good time to share our thoughts on the subject.

When we began working on the GOV.UK beta in August 2011, Tom Loosemore wrote:

"We want to make the most easy to use, accessible government website there has ever been. Merely ticking a box marked ‘accessible’ isn’t enough."

The more we thought about this, the more we realised that we needed to take a different approach to accessibility.

We didn’t want accessibility to be an annual accreditation or statement of intention. We didn’t think it should be a box to tick before we moved on to something else. We didn’t want it to be an afterthought, and most of all we didn’t want it to be something we had to commit to becoming at some time in the future.

We just wanted GOV.UK to be as accessible as possible, which is why inclusive design is one of our design principles. It's also the reason why we consider accessibility to be everyone’s responsibility, why we follow accessibility guidelines, and why we test everything we do with older and disabled people.

So to return to that question about accessibility statements: we realised that if we wanted accessibility to be a basic part of GOV.UK, we had to treat it like all the other basic parts. We didn’t have statements for creative design, technical merit, or user friendliness, so why single out accessibility?

Research from 2006 found that most accessibility statements were out of date, or contained inaccurate information. We didn’t want to publish an accessibility statement when GOV.UK was launched and then realise that we couldn’t keep it in step with the updates happening almost daily on GOV.UK.

In the end, the decision was simple. We didn’t think anyone should have to look at a statement to find out whether GOV.UK was accessible. Accessibility means different things to different people, and it either works for you or it doesn’t (and if it doesn’t, let us know so we can make it better).

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  1. Comment by Veronika Jermolina posted on

    Thanks for your blog Leonie! I often quote you to other organisations in trying to shift them from this box-ticking way of thinking about accessibility 🙂

    I've seen it over and over in testing that users (of all abilities) had no interest in the accessibility statement. Accessibility statements were usually a bunch of useless text copied and pasted from elsewhere. So both people who were creating it and people who it was aimed at had no interest in it.

    It's definitely good to have a .../accessibility page to honestly tell people what is happening accessibility-wise (are you talking to your users regularly? are you including access needs in your standard testing sample? what has been done so far? where are you going next?) and allow people to provide feedback.

    Anyways, thanks again. It's fantastic that this way of thinking is coming from the government. It's also the only way that we can make an impact!

  2. Comment by Mark Steven (@markfsteven) posted on

    It's kind of off-topic but I'm interested in whether considered the requirements of minority language users? It's been an accepted equal opportunities norm in offline materials to offer minority language (e.g. Arabic, Urdu etc) translations on request by citizens.

    Or is the decision to offer this (and advertise the availability of this service) down to the discretion of the departments involved?

    In extreme circumstances I can see how critical this may be (e.g. asylum seekers). For less critical circumstances users may be happy to get by with Google Translate.

    Just curious to know whether it was considered and what the rationale ended up being.

  3. Comment by Amajjika posted on

    I agree with your reasoning and sentiments Leonie. But given that some people are still finding access difficult, perhaps the purpose of the accessibility statement is to provide these people with options on what to do if they experience problems as @IanHamilton suggests.

    Australian government department IP Australia have PDF's of documents that are hundreds of years old. These documents are discoverable in search but are clearly indicated to be inaccessible and clear instructions are given to the user on how to gain access.

    Still your ideology is sound and a great start to embedding accessibility as just part of the process.

  4. Comment by Mike Osborne posted on

    Does including an Accessibility page help users or not? If so, include - if not, don't. It's about utility.

  5. Comment by Justin posted on

    I completely agree that inclusive design should be part of everything we do when making things, be they online or otherwise. I also think that there's a great deal to be proud of in The focus around the user is a huge improvement.

    However, the accessibility statement is more than just a list of standards. It is an opportunity to commit to a level of quality by which you may be judged. It allows users to know that accessibility is something that matters and that if something doesn't work it's not their fault. I guess I just don't understand the advantages of dropping the statement. If the current standards are not working, why not use your influence to improve them?

  6. Comment by John Andrews posted on

    Then make sure that every Helpline that you publish has a published textphone number with it.

  7. Comment by stephen rickitt posted on

    Accessibility is OK but I have been complaining about being unable to download pdfs from for weeks now. The latest is the Scottish Independence papers. If I use an old Vista laptop it's ok but not on a Windows 7. Could someone please answer - ID ref is Ticket #34805: -

  8. Comment by CRAIG MELSON (@craigmelson) posted on

    Problem is much of the content takes you through to old sites- like when I tried to replace my lost driving license yesterday.

    This means whatever statement you do put up would be wrong (as is current situation) because the actual meaningful bit of the website is not built under the framework, therefore not covered by the accessibility statement.

  9. Comment by Kim Spence-Jones posted on

    I like the GDS position. Accessibility and usability are two sides of a single coin. If you wanted any statement, it should be something very similar to the Tom Loosemore quote.

    • Replies to Kim Spence-Jones>

      Comment by Ian Hamilton posted on

      Not quite two sides of the same coin, accessibility is a subset of usability.

    • Replies to Kim Spence-Jones>

      Comment by Ian Hamilton posted on

      Totally agree about the Tom Loosemore thing though!

  10. Comment by Ian Hamilton posted on

    It's not just about stating compliance or making a public commitment, it's also about ease of accountability, offering a direct line in to the person who (although yes, absolutely agree that is down to everyone from all disciplines) has ultimate responsibility for accessibility / is best placed to resolve issues.

    You have a good feedback system to allow this, but many other sites don't.

    • Replies to Ian Hamilton>

      Comment by Ian Hamilton posted on

      Also Léonie it's not quite right to lump accessibility in with creative design, technical merit, or user friendliness, as there are no legal obligations or implications for those other things. You don't get taken to court for poor visual design or use of outdated technology, so having a clear statement of intent is more important for accessibility.

      Just to be clear though there's plenty in the post that is great,'s accessibility work in general has been fantastic and the work for cognitive impairment in general a very rare and valuable thing, but like others I'm not really seeing from your post how advantages of removing outweigh advantages of retaining.

      For me it's more a case of having a clear purpose for the statement and wording accordingly, a great opportunity to put GDS' standpoint on accessibility into a public statement instead of restricted to a separate blog that not many users will ever see.

  11. Comment by Chris Graham posted on

    You'd single out accessibility due to the need to make a stand for a group the web often discriminates against. If you're failing on creative design or user friendliness, it's going to be obvious to every user. For technical merit, you'd have a security policy, but beyond that it's more of an internal issue you need to worry about to avoid technical debt causing you future internal problems. Accessibility is subtle and more easily missed. The statement isn't box ticking, it is a public signal of your stance, because it's the only way most people have of gauging it, and because it builds and sustains awareness. Actions and practices matter more than symbols, but symbols still matter. Don't just go with the hip agile collective kind of thing, it's good to throw out some broader strokes in your communication strategy too.

  12. Comment by pedalo - london (@pedalowebdesign) posted on

    Agreed. Accessibility is more than just trying to conform to standards.

    • Replies to pedalo - london (@pedalowebdesign)>

      Comment by Jon S. posted on

      Accessibility is just pointless extra effort for a small and mostly irrelevant audience. Tell me more about how everyone should go out of their way to accommodate you.