How will Brexit affect web accessibility?

By Jennifer Fuller | 22/09/2016

The debate about the EU referendum and discussion on Brexit has so far divided people into two groups, challenging each other on national security, trade and industry. As far as I am aware, there has been little to no discussion about what Brexit means for those people in the UK living with long-term cognitive, physical, auditory and sensory impairments.

According to the Commission, there are roughly 80 million people in the EU affected by disability. In May 2016 an agreement was reached on a new directive for web accessibility which stated the minimum requirements for accessible content for member states to adhere to.

Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, welcomed the agreement, saying: "Internet access should be a reality for everyone. Leaving millions of Europeans behind is not an option. Tonight's agreement is an important step towards a Digital Single Market, which is about removing barriers so that all Europeans can get the best from the digital world."

You can find more details of the agreement here European Commission Press Release

As always, these things don’t happen overnight. Each member state will have up to two years to adopt the legislation. Although the UK has opted to leave the EU, the statement from Andrus Ansip still stands; fundamentally our divorce from the EU does not and should not impact the reality that the internet should be accessible for all, and it is our opinion that here in the UK we will still continue to strive for that.

So, how has Brexit had an effect on web accessibility in the UK?

Sigma works with organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sector, and in particular those who understand the value and importance of catering for users with accessibility challenges. We have found that many companies are conscious not to alienate their users, but in practice find it difficult to implement the necessary accessibility features to improve the user experience for all. Brexit has somewhat fuelled the fire with regards to the build-up of uncertainty and concerns over EU funding and EU web accessibility compliance, and many companies will now be worried about finding the funds to keep up with these regulations.

Putting users at the heart of our solutions

One of these companies is People for Research. Although their concern is not related to direct funding, they are aware that the changes brought upon the UK by the EU referendum could affect the digital accessibility agenda that has become more prominent in recent years. People for Research recruits people to participate in usability testing and user research, and they recently launched the #MakeTheWebAccessible campaign in an effort to encourage more companies to test their digital products with the help of people with disabilities. They have experience both with disabled people who struggle with inaccessible sites, and with companies striving to make their digital products fully accessible.

Seable is a London-based company that sells accessible holidays and whose audience is solely composed of disabled consumers and their family members or carers. Earlier this year, Seable partnered up with People for Research to talk about digital accessibility, following an article written by Seable’s CEO Damiano La Rocca for the Huffington Post. A few months ago, when Brexit was just a possibility, 70% of websites were still “breaking the law on accessibility”. So, what could this distance in EU membership mean for web accessibility?

Digital regulations are likely to stay in place

Immediately after the Brexit vote, some EU based investors pulled out of digital start-ups in the UK, work and projects were dropped left, right and centre and there was panic in some parts of the digital industry. But was this panic necessary? Not really. All existing digital regulations are likely to stay in place because the UK has no need to amend these at this time. We are fortunate that the UK generally has a progressive state of mind when it comes to web accessibility, and our public sector sees web accessibility as an important factor in moving the UK tech industry forward.

Remain united in promoting web accessibility and inclusive design

The digital industry is most likely to be in a state of flux with regards to how companies approach making their products and services more inclusive. Though many EU funding grants may have been cut as an immediate backlash to the referendum, it is unlikely that any significant changes in online accessibility regulations will come into effect any time soon. Despite the result of the referendum, I have no doubts that the digital industry will remain united in promoting web accessibility and inclusive design. With over 80 million people in Europe with a disability and/or using assistive technology, it’s hard to imagine a world that doesn’t work towards meeting their needs. At least, that’s not a world we want to live in.