International Web Accessibility Laws: An Overview

May 20, 2022

Does your organization have a legal responsibility to maintain an accessible website? 

The short answer: Almost certainly. Most nations have laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating against people who have disabilities in “places of public accommodation.” In the United States and most other developed nations, websites and mobile apps are considered places of public accommodation — and if your brand operates in several countries, you’ll need to comply with every applicable digital accessibility law.

Accessibility has numerous benefits apart from legal compliance, but compliance provides a strong incentive: By one estimate, U.S. brands spent billions responding to digital accessibility complaints in 2020 alone. In this article, we’ll explain how several international web accessibility laws work and provide a roadmap for ensuring compliance. 

For more information about accessibility laws in the United States, read our article: Is There a Legal Requirement to Implement WCAG?

Most international web accessibility laws are based on WCAG

Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the consensus standard for digital accessibility. Rather than write laws with dense technical specifications, many countries simply require conformance with a recent version of WCAG.

Currently, the W3C’s official recommendation for accessibility is WCAG 2.1, with WCAG 2.2 expected for release in 2022. However, many laws reference WCAG 2.0, an earlier version of the guidelines. All current versions of WCAG are backwards-compatible — in other words, if a website conforms with WCAG 2.1, they also conform with WCAG 2.0. 

WCAG is organized by three levels: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict). Sites that conform with Level AA checkpoints are considered reasonably accessible for most users. 

International laws that require conformance with WCAG 2.0 Level A/AA include:

Other countries require accessibility, but do not explicitly require WCAG conformance.  For example:

  • Title III of the United States' Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t require WCAG conformance, but WCAG is frequently referenced in ADA complaints.
  • Japan’s Elimination of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities Act requires digital accessibility, but does not reference WCAG specifically. However, Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) X 8341-3 includes the same principles and success criteria as WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
  • India’s 2016 Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act requires “reasonable accommodations" for digital content, but WCAG is not referenced. 

All of these laws apply to private businesses. Penalties differ from country to country; India, for example, has relatively aggressive enforcement mechanisms that can include fines for individual decision-makers within non-compliant organizations.

Most nations hold different accessibility requirements for government agencies and private entities

Some countries do not assess financial penalties for private organizations that fail to meet accessibility standards. However, government mandates are usually more strict — and the laws often apply to contractors.

In the United States, Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended in 1998 to require WCAG conformance. Currently, the law requires federal agencies and their contractors to conform with WCAG 2.0 Level AA. 

Other public-sector digital accessibility laws that require WCAG 2.0 Level AA conformance include:

Some countries update requirements for government and public sector entities to keep them in line with the latest official W3C recommendations. To ensure full compliance, the best practice is to audit your website for conformance with the latest version of WCAG.

Related: How To Prevent a Web Accessibility Lawsuit

WCAG conformance provides the best path for accessibility compliance

Accessibility laws and industry-specific regulations usually require WCAG conformance for a simple reason: The WCAG framework is based on straightforward principles, and each checkpoint contains clear guidance for developers, designers, and content creators. 

WCAG requires content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (often abbreviated as POUR). Content that fulfills these principles is more useful for everyone — not just people with disabilities. Accessible websites perform better in search engine rankings and retain more users.

Whether your organization needs to ensure compliance with a specific law or you’re looking for ways to improve your user experience, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. Find out whether your site meets WCAG success criteria with a free, confidential website accessibility analysis or contact us to learn more.

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