New report shows many of Northern Ireland’s authorities and private companies fail when it comes to digital accessibility
A new report commissioned by ForSight NI — a charity that supports children and adults who are blind or visually impaired — has revealed many of Northern Ireland’s most profitable companies, and indeed essential authorities, fail to meet digital accessibility guidelines.
The report, titled the Northern Irish Digital Accessibility Index 2022, was put together by Inclusion and Accessibility Labs, an organisation that specialises in auditing websites for digital accessibility.
The report’s aim is to educate and guide businesses and public sector bodies here on their journey to create an accessible digital future that nurtures societal equality and also benefits businesses but it is clear from the report that much work needs to be done.
Robbie Best, Head of Communications at NICVA, said: “At NICVA, we welcome the report and look forward to working closely with ForSight NI and IA Labs in the future.
“As the umbrella body for the community and voluntary sector, we represent organisations who work with people and communities accessing services all across Northern Ireland from education and health, to community transport and services for young people.
“Digital services aren’t a nice to have, they’re a vital part of our everyday lives so making sure these services are accessible to everyone is really important for us as a sector.
“We’re working closely with IA Labs to ensure our own new website is fully accessible when it launches later this year and will be supporting our sector get help, support and guidance to ensure their services can be accessed by everyone who relies on them”.
Among the most important findings in the report was that of all sectors covered, only one sector — government department websites, which legally have to meet official guidelines known as WCAG standards — has a 100% audit pass rate.
It also found that although all nine departments passed the IA Labs audit, none were 100% free from accessibility issues. The nine departments had several issues each, with the Department for the Economy performing best.
The private sector fared worst in the report which said of Northern Ireland’s top 10 businesses; just three passed IA Labs’ accessibility audit.
Moy Park, which is Northern Ireland’s second-largest employer, had 41 issues. And while not legally obliged to meet accessibility standards, these private firms’ performances in terms of digital accessibility were well below par given their turnovers, global reach, and customer base.
Meanwhile of Northern Ireland’s 11 local authorities (councils), just nine passed the audit, despite an obligation to meet the accessibility standards outlined in the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018.
The two authorities that did not attain the standard were Derry City and Strabane District and Newry, Mourne and Down District. The best performer was Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council with zero accessibility issues.
Northern Ireland’s housing organisations also fell short of the standards, with only one (Clanmil Housing) of five passing the audit. Highlighting the importance of this shortfall in this sector, the report reads: “The ability to look for housing options online is as important as being given equal access to housing in the first place.”
In education, of the small section of schools that were assessed within the primary and secondary levels, five out of 12 secondary schools and four out of 12 primary schools passed an accessibility audit.
Five of our six health and social care trusts passed IA’s accessibility review. Meanwhile of our four state agencies including the likes of Libraries NI and the NI Housing Executive, only one agency — NI Housing Executive — passed IA Labs’ application of the WCAG 2.1 AA standard. Libraries NI and Invest NI surprisingly had the most accessibility issues.
The final element of the report showed that out of our three utility providers — Northern Ireland Water, NIE Networks and SSE — just NIE Networks passed the IA Labs accessibility review. This is despite Northern Ireland Water being government-owned, which means it falls under the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018.
Chris White, ForSight NI Chief Executive Officer, said: “Our report is compiled to guide and inform relevant authorities and businesses of where the shortfalls are in digital accessibility. It is not a name-and-shame guide but rather a highlight of how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.
“It’s essential that authorities and organisations make their digital assets accessible in Northern Ireland, where one in five people have a disability. That amounts to approximately 336,000 people — a huge part of the population that is vulnerable to being excluded from digital access.
“Being digitally accessible is not just a legal obligation for those who are bound by law, but it’s a moral obligation and one that is essential for good business practice and in the near future, essential for operating in continents including the US and Europe where digitally accessibility is scrutinised even more.
“As well as showing you have admirable environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards, being digitally accessible opens your business to a new audience or indeed a new customer which is a profitable move.
“We hope the findings in this report encourage businesses and authorities to take action and maintain an inclusive action-focused mindset for a more inclusive world.”
Kyran O’Mahoney, Chief Executive Officer of IA Labs and Chief Technology Officer of NCBI, added: “The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations and Equality Act 2010 are vital for ensuring inclusive digital experiences. However, our research shows that people with disabilities still encounter discrimination in an increasingly digital society. Compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is mandatory for the public sector under UK law, so businesses, organizations, and service providers in Northern Ireland must assess their website or mobile app's accessibility and take action to ensure full inclusivity. Digital accessibility benefits both end-users and businesses, promoting equality and improving profitability.”
ForSight NI is increasing its presence further in Northern Ireland with the launch of a brand new vintage charity shop in Lombard Street, Belfast.
A full breakdown of the findings of the Northern Irish Digital Accessibility Index 2022 can be found within the report, which also details findings from Google Lighthouse, an automated tool used for improving the quality of web pages. It should be noted that IA Labs’ audit process is a more manual and comprehensive inspection.
Subscribe to eNews
Share your COVID-19 support service
Organisations providing support to people and communities can share their service information here