Digital accessibility laws vary greatly from country to country, which can make compliance confusing for content creators. Of course, accessibility has numerous benefits outside of legal compliance — but compliance remains a significant concern, particularly for organizations that operate in multiple countries.
The European Union (EU) has taken important steps towards establishing a consistent set of international standards. While each EU member state has its own laws for web accessibility, the EU’s Web Accessibility Directive and European Accessibility Act (EAA) are intended to standardize accessibility by compelling adoption of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is a framework of principles, guidelines, and checkpoints published by the World Wide Web Consortium.
In this article, we’ll provide a brief overview of how these two pieces of legislation work. The bottom line: By conforming with the latest version of WCAG, creators can ensure compliance — regardless of where they do business.
The European Union Web Accessibility Directive
According to the World Health Organization, about 135 million people in Europe live with some form of disability. Accessibility barriers can prevent some people from perceiving or interacting with web content; when government entities offer important services through the internet, this is an especially serious issue.
The EU’s Web Accessibility Directive is a 15-page document that applies to all public sector websites and mobile applications in member states, along with organizations financed through public contracts.
Important features of the EU Web Accessibility Directive include:
- All member states must develop accessibility standards based on WCAG 2.0 Level AA. Read more about WCAG levels in our article: What's The Difference Between WCAG Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA?
- All organizations that must comply with the Directive must publish an accessibility statement for mobile apps and websites. Users must be able to provide feedback regarding accessibility issues.
- The Directive also applies to emergency electronic communication services.
- As of December 23, 2021, all member states' websites will be monitored. Public reports will be issued regarding compliance.
The Web Accessibility Directive does not apply to private businesses, provided that those organizations are not third-party vendors for government services.
The European Accessibility Act (EAA)
The European Accessibility Act applies to most private companies. However, it is not yet fully enacted: The legislation will be enforced by July 28, 2025, and member states have until June 28, 2022 to adopt the EAA into their national laws.
Important features of the EAA include:
- Member states must enact accessibility laws based on WCAG. Private enterprises must maintain websites that meet WCAG Level AA standards and publish accessibility statements declaring their conformance.
- The EAA also includes accessibility requirements for televisions, e-book readers, automated teller machines (ATMs), and various other devices, as well as services like public transportation and banking.
- Micro-organizations with fewer than 10 employees may be exempt from compliance requirements. The EAA also makes exceptions for companies that would face an “undue financial burden.” However, most private organizations will need to demonstrate compliance.
If your organization operates in the European Union — or if your customers live in a member state — it’s a good idea to take immediate steps to conform with WCAG Level AA. Fortunately, WCAG provides a clear roadmap for building (and maintaining) accessible content.
How WCAG Conformance Provides the Best Path to Legal Compliance
WCAG is based on four principles of accessibility, which are specifically referenced in both the EU Web Accessibility Directive and the EAA: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Content that follows these principles can provide a better experience for all users — regardless of their abilities or the methods they use to browse the web.
Most accessibility laws (including the new laws passed by European Union member states) are based on WCAG. Some important accessibility laws don’t include technical specifications — for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — but WCAG is frequently cited in ADA cases as a reasonable standard of accessibility.
Every website should provide an equivalent experience for all users, including people with disabilities and conditions that affect their browsing habits. WCAG provides guidance for building a better experience and developing an accessibility-first mindset.