The European Commission is currently developing a range of website accessibility guidelines specific to mobile applications. In April 2017, it advised the European Standards Organizations (ESOs) through Mandate 554 to develop digital accessibility standards for both public sector websites and mobile applications.
These new standards build on the EU’s 2016 Web and Mobile Accessibility Directive, which directed all EU member states to make their websites and mobile apps accessible, although these were non-binding guidelines. The new standards go further by not only extending the standards to specifically address mobile apps, but also by making the standards binding for member states.
Mandate 554 is based on existing technical standards, namely the World Wide Web Consortium’s WCAG 2.0. The WCAG includes a wide range of guidelines on how to improve web accessibility as well as detailing accessibility testing processes.
Mandate 554 directs the ESOs to use the WCAG 2.0 accessibility principles in developing the standards. These principles focus on perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness.
- Perceivability The standard must ensure that information and user interface components are presentable to users in ways they can perceive. This means that users must be able to perceive the information being presented (i.e., it can't be invisible to all of a user’s senses).
- Operability The standard must ensure that user interface components and navigation are operable.
- Understandability This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface — in other words, the content or operation should not be beyond their understanding.
- Robustness The content shall be robust enough to be interpreted in a reliable manner by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. This means that users must be able to continue to access the content as technologies advance in
The EU directives bring member states in line with the current US Department of Justice viewpoint on accessibility provisions, which are enforced in the US under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Department of Justice also calls on organizations to base their digital accessibility requirements on the WCAG 2.0 guidelines. Therefore, US-based sites that are ADA-compliant should essentially be in line with the EU standards.
In addition to more general rules that cover website accessibility, the mandate also states that the particular technical and conceptual circumstances of mobile devices should be taken into account.
The new mandate is definitely a positive step, opening the door for greater alignment on accessibility by referring specifically to mobile apps. Yet, there is no doubt that developing technical specifications for mobile apps will be a difficult process. The volume of mobile apps in existence, the rate at which new ones are developed, and the rapid pace of technological change in terms of mobile devices all contribute to the complexity of the issue. Thus, it may still be some time before the ESOs reach agreement on how to progress the standards in line with the mandate and finalize the specific mobile app specifications.