Content accessibility part 3: Plain english and the law

By Hannah Collins

11 July 2022

How liable is your organisation if your content is not written in plain English? Find out in part 3 of our series on content accessibility.

Much of the emphasis on accessibility is around how to make your website accessible from a technical standpoint. Making it navigable for screen readers. Using colours that work for people with visual impairments. And lots of organisations will happily point to their web-friendly documents, alt text descriptions and video captioning. All great for accessibility.

But what about the words themselves? Is there such a thing as accessible content writing? To understand content accessibility, we first need to look at what the laws say.

What are the laws and who has to follow them?

There are two laws relating to accessibility in the UK:

  • Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018
  • Equality Act 2010 (or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland)

Public sector bodies must follow both these regulations. That includes central government, local government and some third sector organisations. Private sector bodies are currently only subject to the Equality Act.

Is plain English an accessibility requirement?

Under the 2018 regulations, public sector websites and apps must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 2.2 AA accessibility standard. This level of the WCAG standard does not reference plain English. In other words, if you work in the public sector, your organisation is not yet legally required to write in plain English. However: while it's not a legal requirement (yet), there is such a thing as content accessibility. Plain English is part of this.

Making your content accessible

To understand how to make content accessible, we need to take a deeper look at the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG 2.1 contains 4 sections:

  1. Perceivable
  2. Operable
  3. Understandable
  4. Robust

Content accessibility is referenced in Section 3: Understandable, under AAA level. Remember, public sector organisations currently only need to comply with AA. So while you can (and should) comply with these, it's a recommendation rather than a rule.

Unusual words (3.1.3)

From “A mechanism is available for identifying specific definitions of words or phrases used in an unusual or restricted way, including idioms and jargon.”

A simple way to meet this criteria is to explain any terms the general public might not understand. It’s best to do this in the following sentence. For example: "Storm ID offers user-centred design. User-centred design is a process that puts users at the heart of services and experiences." You can also meet this criteria by linking off to definitions in a glossary page. Be mindful though that this can take your user away from the task they are trying to complete.

More information:

Abbreviations (3.1.4)

From “A mechanism for identifying the expanded form or meaning of abbreviations is available.”

This is a simple one: explain what acronyms mean. The first time an acronym is used, write the name out in full, followed by the acronym in brackets. You can then use the acronym in subsequent mentions. For example: "This blog post references the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG describes how to make websites accessible to all users." This criteria applies to anywhere an acronym is used, for example web pages, documents and site navigation labels.

More information:

Reading level (3.1.5)

From “When text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level after removal of proper names and titles, supplemental content, or a version that does not require reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level, is available.”

Here's where plain English comes into it. This criteria is describing how content should be written for a reading age of no higher than 11 to 13 years old. To meet the criteria, you need to either:

  • write all of your content in plain English
  • provide a plain English or alternative version (for example, an ‘easy read’ version of a document)

More information:

The case for meeting content accessibility criteria

So why meet these AAA criteria if you do not legally have to? There are 3 key reasons that come to mind for me.

Accessibility criteria is constantly evolving

WCAG 3.0 is currently in progress. Just because plain English is not a legal requirement today does not mean this will always be the case.

Meeting the 2018 regulations does not absolve you from the Equality Act

People have – and will continue to – take organisations to court for inaccessible content.

Plain English content IS accessible content

Focusing on making your content clear and simple will help embed an accessibility-first approach in your organisation.

And if none of those are compelling enough reasons, consider this: what is the purpose of your content? If your aim is not to make it understandable, why publish it?

How we can help

Need support with content accessibility? Get in touch today to speak to us about how our expert user-centred design team can help.

Further reading

For more about plain English, check out the other parts of this series: Part 1: Speak plainly and Part 2: Writing in plain English.

For more information on public sector accessibility requirements, check out the GOV.UK guidance on understanding accessibility requirements for public sector bodies.