On June 28, 2022, the member states of the European Union must create their own digital accessibility law per the European Accessibility Act (also known as the EAA or EU Directive 2019/882) into their national laws. It’s an important milestone for digital accessibility — but for organizations that haven’t taken the necessary steps to improve their web content, the clock is ticking.
If your organization operates in an EU member state, here’s what you need to know.
What Is the European Accessibility Act?
The EAA establishes common rules on accessibility with the goal of removing barriers that affect people with disabilities. It establishes standards for products and services, including websites and mobile apps, but it isn’t limited to digital content; the full text of the EAA lays out requirements for ATMs, TV equipment, telephone services, emergency phone numbers, and more.
The act is closely related to the European Union Web Accessibility Directive, which applies to public sector websites and mobile applications. Unlike the Web Accessibility Directive, the EAA creates compliance requirements for private businesses, with limited exceptions for “micro-businesses" that cannot modify their products or services without taking on an undue financial burden.
The European Accessibility Act does not specify technical standards for compliance, but states that websites and mobile apps must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. However, the Web Accessibility Directive requires compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA, which is generally considered a reasonable standard for accessibility.
Each member state must create its own digital accessibility law by June 28, 2022
EU member states must enforce their digital accessibility laws by June 28, 2025. The law also includes transitional measures to extend this timeline for products that are already in use prior to that date.
Digital accessibility laws often have long implementation periods to avoid creating an undue burden on private businesses. The European Accessibility Act is no different, and most nations will probably provide businesses with a reasonable timeline for implementing accessibility improvements. However, exact requirements and enforcement timelines will vary by country.
Whether or not the new laws specifically cite WCAG, businesses that conform with the latest version of the guidelines (currently, WCAG 2.1) will be well-prepared to demonstrate compliance.
WCAG Conformance and the European Accessibility Act
WCAG includes technical criteria for improving experiences for users with disabilities. Its checkpoints are based on four principles of accessible design, which are directly referenced in the text of the European Accessibility Act:
- Perceivable - Content must be presented to users in ways they can perceive.
- Operable - Interfaces cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform.
- Understandable - Users must be able to understand both the content and any interactive elements.
- Robust - Content must be able to be reliably interpreted by a wide variety of user agents.
Adopting these principles helps to ensure that content works for a wide range of users, regardless of their abilities, browsing habits, or technology preferences. WCAG also helps businesses accommodate people with temporary or situational disabilities (for instance, someone who browses a website without sound enabled).
Does my business need to comply with the European Accessibility Act?
The EAA applies to any product or service that is sold or used within the European Union, so even if your business has its headquarters in another country, you’ll need to take steps to ensure compliance.
And even if your organization operates wholly outside of the European Union, most developed countries have digital accessibility requirements for private businesses. Following the WCAG framework can also demonstrate a reasonable standard of compliance with laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and Section 508 of the United States Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
In short, nearly every website has a legal obligation to provide access for people with disabilities — and since accessibility also improves search engine optimization (SEO), user retention rates, and brand loyalty, businesses have strong incentives to earn WCAG conformance before the European Accessibility Act is fully enforced.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help your organization meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA checkpoints and create a long-term strategy for success. Contact us to learn more.