Skip to main content
Table of contents

The GDS Way and its content is intended for internal use by the GDS community.

Building accessible services

Government services must be accessible to everyone. This includes anyone with a visual, hearing, speech, motor or learning impairment. This also includes anyone with a temporary or situational disability, such as a person with a broken arm or working in a loud environment.

Building a service with accessibility in mind not only allows those with access needs to use your service, it also improves the service for everyone else. An accessibility problem with a website can be something that affects everyone, not just people who can only access the web with a keyboard or screen reader.

Government services are legally required to be accessible. This means services must comply with the international WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standard. New regulation means that existing websites must be compliant by 2020. Native apps must be compliant by June 2021.

Further reading:

How to make your service accessible

Consider accessibility from the start

You cannot achieve accessibility by adding some final touches - it must be considered at all stages of a project. You should review designs for possible issues, write and run tests throughout development, and test services with accessibility in mind.

Understand that not everyone reads content the same way

A sighted user might navigate a page from top to bottom, perhaps skim reading through headings and paragraphs to find the content they want.

Non sighted users can also skim read a page. Screen readers can announce content by element type, such as headings, paragraphs or links. For example, if a screen reader user expects a page to contain data in a table element, such as a train timetable, they might start by reading through all the tables on a page.

This is why semantic markup and good heading structure are important when building accessible services.

Automated testing

Accessibility testing tools such as aXe and Lighthouse are useful for finding issues, but automated testing can only find around 30% of likely accessibility problems. Automated testing shouldn’t be the only accessibility testing carried out on a service, it should also be tested with real users.

Browser compatibility testing

Services should be thoroughly tested in all browsers they are required to be compatible with, including mobile devices and accessibility tools such as screen readers. Emulated browser testing services are available, but some testing on real mobile devices is also recommended.

For reference, these are the browsers that GOV.UK is required to be compatible with and a service should also work with these assistive technologies.

Test content served by third party systems

If a service is built using an existing or third party system, such as a content management system or JavaScript framework, it should be tested for accessibility. Accessibility compliance cannot be guaranteed by any system, as even small changes can introduce accessibility barriers.

Testing with real users

Services should be tested by real users to evaluate how accessible they are. This can be with members of the public as well as specialist organisations who provide accessibility testing services.

You can test your service using an accessibility empathy lab, such as the one at GDS, which is designed to provide a simulation of using the web with accessibility issues so developers can better understand what this is like.

Testing with real users can be a time consuming process. It is recommended that this is done only after other accessibility testing takes place.

Consider using the GOV.UK Design System

The GOV.UK Design System is a collection of website styles, components and patterns designed to be used to build government services. It provides pre-built website markup that has been developed specifically to be accessible. Using it will also save development time and provide a look and feel consistent with other government services.

While it may not have a full set of components for every service, it provides a solid foundation to work from that can be expanded to suit a services individual needs.

Specific guidance

There is a common misconception that accessibility is difficult, time consuming and costly. This is not true, however the range of possible issues that could occur is too wide to detail here. Having said that, here are some common accessibility issues many websites have, why they’re a problem and how to avoid them.

Non semantic HTML

Semantic HTML means using the appropriate element for the element being described. A common example of this is not using a button element for a button, but relying on JavaScript to provide the correct action when the element is used.

This is a problem because non-semantic HTML is difficult for technologies such as screen readers to understand. This means that some users will not be able to operate or interact with these elements, potentially rendering a service unusable.

Poor in-page navigation

As websites become increasingly large it is common to have navigation sections at the top of the page containing lots of links to other parts of the site. It is important to provide a mechanism for skipping past these elements to the main content for keyboard users, such as a skip link.

You should build pages using landmarks in order to allow users to navigate more easily between them. For example, an email application might have one landmark for the email folder pane (inbox, drafts, etc.) and another for the email list pane.

Improper heading structure

Screen reader users can rely heavily on correct heading structure within a page in order to navigate and understand its content. The page title should be presented within an H1 element, and all other headings should follow a logical ordering e.g. H1, H2, H3, not H1, H3, H2.

Form controls not associated with a label

All form controls should have a label associated with them that describes what the form control should be used for. Placeholder text is not an acceptable alternative.

Labels should provide a short but clear explanation of a form control. Further detail can be provided using a separate element. This should also be associated with the form control by using an attribute such as aria-describedby.

The text of a link should describe what that link points to. It should not rely on the surrounding text for context. Users of assistive technology can navigate pages by element type, which means that link text such as ‘click here’ or ‘read more’ does not help a user understand where the link goes.

Poor colour contrast

Users can have a range of sight issues, including colour blindness or situational disabilities such as screen glare. Text on a web page should always be clear and readable and background images behind text should generally be avoided.

WCAG 2.1 level AA requires a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text. Contrast checking tools such as WebAIM’s contrast checker can provide a quick way to test if text is readable.

Poor keyboard navigation

Keyboard users rely on focus states to know where they are on a page. This means that elements such as links and form controls must have a clear focus state set in CSS to indicate when those elements have keyboard focus.

This issue relates back to the use of semantic HTML. The use of inappropriate elements can remove the ability for keyboard users to access controls on a page, making the service unusable.


Services should have a responsive layout in order to work on any screen size. In addition, consideration and testing should be included for users who apply customisations to their web browsing, either through web browser controls or specific tools. Examples of these customisations include increasing the font size or applying a custom stylesheet, such as a high contrast theme.

Complex interactive pages

Pages that provide detailed interaction for the user must be built with accessibility in mind. If page elements are updated dynamically using JavaScript you should use attributes such as aria-controls and aria-live so screen reader users are informed when page content changes.

Images without alt text

Non sighted users cannot understand an image without meaningful alternative text (alt text). Alt text should concisely convey the intent of the image and not necessarily describe it fully.

For example, the alt text “a hearty Christmas feast” may be more helpful in conveying the intent of an image than “a plate with turkey, roast potatoes, stuffing, gravy, sprouts and carrots”. However, an image with empty alt text is better than an image with no alt attribute at all.

This page was last reviewed on 11 June 2019. It needs to be reviewed again on 11 December 2019 by the page owner #gds-way .
This page was set to be reviewed before 11 December 2019 by the page owner #gds-way. This might mean the content is out of date.