Websites in European Union countries must now comply with the European Accessibility Act (EAA) and the European Web Accessibility Directive, two pieces of legislation that set consistent accessibility standards for products and services offered by member countries.
The Directive, which applies specifically to government-funded agencies and their third-party vendors, uses WCAG 2.1 as its framework, requiring public institutions to offer accessible audiovisual resources (including websites). As of September 23, 2020, all new and existing public websites must conform with that legislation.
The EAA applies to all organizations and will be actively enforced in a few years. That doesn’t mean that private companies can safely ignore accessibility until then — the EAA will apply to most publicly accessible websites starting on June 28, 2025. The EAA contains some exemptions for micro-organizations for companies that would face an “undue financial burden" when implementing accessibility features, but these exemptions mostly apply to small businesses and organizations with fewer than 20 employees.
Put simply, most websites operating in the European Union need to prioritize compliance as soon as possible — and even outside the EU, the Web Accessibility Directive has important implications for the future of the internet.
How the European Web Accessibility Directive draws from WCAG 2.1
Many countries within the EU already have accessibility laws that pertain to websites, but the EU intends to standardize (and in the process, simplify) compliance by setting out consistent guidelines for web content. To that end, three European Standards Organizations (ESOs) published EN 301 549, Accessibility Requirements for ICT Products and Services (PDF), referenced explicitly in the Directive. EN 301 549 can help organizations in both the public and private sector meet the EU’s thresholds for accessibility.
To people some familiarity to web accessibility standards, EN 301 549 looks remarkably familiar — that’s because it directly references the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), requiring sites to meet WCAG 2.1’s success criteria. Content must be presented in accordance with the POUR principles of accessibility (Perceivability, Operability, Understandability, and Robustness), with appropriate accommodations for users with disabilities.
For the uninitiated, WCAG 2.1 sets out three levels of conformance: A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest). The guidelines lay out success criteria extensively in order to meet the needs of different situations; while we won’t discuss WCAG success criteria extensively in this article, readers can review WCAG principles and checkpoints here. Sites that meet AA criteria should comply with both the Web Accessibility Directive and the European Accessibility Act.
The Sept. 23, 2020 deadline refers specifically to websites, not mobile apps. However, all new and existing public-sector mobile apps will be required to conform with the Directive by June 23, 2021.
What websites can do to comply with the European Accessibility Act's Directives
For site owners, the first step towards compliance with either piece of legislation is to perform a compliance audit, which will identify accessibility issues that would affect the experience of people with disabilities.
After identifying and correcting accessibility issues, organizations should train staff to recognize potential accessibility challenges and make appropriate considerations for all users. WCAG can be enormously helpful for understanding and internalizing accessibility principles.
Sites should also provide accessibility statements outlining their commitment to being accessible. Note that the Directive specifically requires public sector websites to publish accessibility statements — and for private businesses, a statement can be enormously beneficial for establishing a roadmap and preventing litigation while a website is improved.
Each European Union member state sets its own penalties for failing to conform with the Accessibility Act and its related legislation, and member states may demand fines for violations.