What is the European Union’s Web Accessibility Directive?

November 19, 2021

About 135 million people in Europe live with some form of disability, and the number is expected to increase as populations age. In the modern world, many people rely on computers, smartphones, and other digital devices — and without standards for digital accessibility, many users encounter barriers that prevent them from performing everyday tasks.

The EU’s Web Accessibility Directive is part of an effort to establish digital accessibility standards for public organizations within the European Union. It is closely related to the European Accessibility Act, but not identical (we’ll discuss the differences between the two directives later in this article).

What websites must comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive?

While the primary purpose of the Web Accessibility Directive is to ensure that all government websites follow the same accessibility standards, the regulation also affects private companies that offer resources through government websites.

The 15-page directive applies to public sector websites and mobile applications. In addition to local, regional, and state offices, the regulations apply to organizations financed through public contracts (in other words, third-party vendors). All member states in the European Union must implement — and enforce — uniform accessibility standards based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The directive has been in force since 2016. However, the authors included enforcement deadlines to provide webmasters with time to make the necessary changes; as of June 2021, the directive is past its final stage of compliance. The regulations are enforced by member states, and websites that violate the directive may face fines.

The EU Web Accessibility Directive implements standards based on WCAG 2.0

Like many digital accessibility laws, the EU Web Accessibility Directive is based upon the WCAG framework. It directly references WCAG 2.0 and requires websites to publish a public accessibility statement with conformance information (WCAG 2.1, which was introduced in 2018, is the W3C’s most recent recommendation).

In addition to a public accessibility statement, websites must: 

  • Ensure that all website and mobile content meets WCAG 2.0 Level AA, which is generally considered the standard for reasonable accessibility.
  • Provide users with resources for reporting accessibility issues.
  • Provide a link that explains the enforcement procedures of the EU Web Accessibility Directive.

Because WCAG focuses on four principles (content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust), it offers a straightforward roadmap to creating better content for all internet users. While public-sector websites in the European Union have a legal responsibility to comply with the directive, it’s important to remember that digital accessibility provides numerous benefits outside of legal compliance.

Read: What Are the Four Major Categories of Accessibility?

The European Accessibility Act will apply to private websites

As we noted earlier in this article, the European Accessibility Act (EAA) is closely related to the Web Accessibility Directive. Both regulations are based on WCAG standards, but the EAA applies to most private companies that sell products or services. In addition to website accessibility, the act intends to standardize accessibility for TV equipment, smartphones, tablets, eBook readers, and various other devices.

Unlike the Web Accessibility Directive, the EAA has not reached its final phase of enforcement. Currently, the implementation timeline includes several key dates: 

  • By June 28, 2022, member states must translate the EAA and adopt it into their national laws.
  • By July 28, 2025, the directive must be enforced. 

The EAA contains exceptions for older content and for “micro-businesses" with fewer than 10 employees. Nevertheless, it will have a dramatic effect on the internet: Even with varying levels of enforcement among member states, the EAA and the Web Accessibility Directive are expected to standardize the best practices of digital accessibility.

Does my website comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive and the European Accessibility Act?

Because both of the directives follow WCAG, webmasters can comply with the laws by auditing their digital content for conformance with the latest version of the guidelines. In most cases, the best course of action is to begin testing content before publication — the costs of remediation can be considerably lower when a website is designed for accessibility.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers WCAG 2.1 Level AA auditing services, along with free automated analysis tools for identifying common WCAG conformance issues. Whether your website needs to comply with the Web Accessibility Directive, the European Accessibility Act, or other legislation, our compliance roadmap offers an excellent starting point. 

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