The European Accessibility Act
The European Accessibility Act (EAA) is the E.U. legislation mandating accessibility standards for various digital products and services. It was adopted by the Union on April 2019.
It is important to note that European policy on web accessibility took shape over a long, often complicated process.
For companies to fully understand European accessibility compliance, a bit of background is necessary.
Current European standards emerged from a year-long trend of policy decisions by E.U. authorities to address the needs of the disabled. This pattern was already beginning to take shape in the early 2000s.
By 2006, the European Commission had made full European web accessibility an aim for the coming years in the famous Riga Ministerial Declaration. This carried into initiatives such as the 2010 European Disability Strategy (EDS) and the Mandate 376 Accessible ICT Procurement Toolkit. The main driver of these directives was to harmonize the accessibility requirements for all E.U. Member States.
Nearly a decade ago, policymakers laid out the goal of achieving a coherent, unified set of web accessibility standards for the entire continent by the year 2020. Thus several directives relating to web accessibility have been published by E.U. bodies in the last several years. An important milestone came in 2016 with the publishing of the Web Accessibility Directive which mandated that all official public services make their websites and mobile apps accessible to disabled persons.
At the same time, regulators also began working on standards for the private sector. In 2015 the E.U. regulatory agency that deals with the digital sphere, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) produced a document entitled EN 301549 which contained the official Union standards for web accessibility and procuring digital technologies and services. The latest version of EN 301549 was released in 2018. The actual technical standards of EN 301549 are based exclusively on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
Although EN 301549 was designed to reflect other national and international protocols such as the American Section 508, the standards themselves did not have the force of law. Compliance with EN 301549 has technically been voluntary since it was first published four years ago. This changed however with the passing of the EAA.
Requirements of EAA
The text of EAA makes no reference to particular standards or any set of rules to determine a website’s compliance. In fact, a key emphasis of the law is to give service providers some flexibility in how to apply the law. As the EAA official Fact Sheet (available for download here) states, the law will “not impose detailed technical solutions telling how to make” a site compliant. The legislation does give a list of “general requirements” and “non-binding examples” in its addendum on how to make certain website functions accessible. Additionally, the EAA requires that no function be limited to a single mode of sensory interaction. For instance, audio content must also be accessible through captions and written text through a screen reader. Beyond that, however, detailed rules in the law are sparse.
Despite the lack of clarification in the text of EAA itself, there are clear indications that in practice, companies will be held to the standards laid out in EN 301549. There are several factors that point to this conclusion. First is the fact that EN 301549 has contained the E.U. standards on web accessibility for the past four years. It is only natural that regulators will turn to this document when accessing a site’s compliance level. Second, EN 301549 was referenced repeatedly in the bureaucratic process leading up to EAA’s codification, such as in the law's proposal text. Lastly, one of the central non-governmental advocates of EAA, the European Disability Forum (EDF), has made several formal recommendations that EN 301549 makes up the basis for E.U. accessibility law. Considering that EDF was one of the key consultants for policymakers on EAA’s formulation, it is almost certain that regulators will follow the group’s guidance on this point. As explained above, EN 301549 is essentially a copy-paste from the WCAG when it comes to web accessibility.
To Whom does EAA Apply?
The EAA is not a blanket law affecting all industries.
The limited nature of EAA was planned from the start. As policymakers wrote in the EAA proposal in 2016: “Regarding proportionality, the content and form of the proposed action do not exceed what is necessary to achieve the goal of ensuring the proper functioning of the internal market.”
- The EAA clearly defines which products and services are subject to the new law. They include:
- Computers and operating systems
- Telephone services and related equipment
- Audiovisual media services, such as television broadcast and related consumer equipment
- Services related to air, bus, rail, and other passenger transport
- Banking services
In light of this list, it should be clear that EAA covers all online business services and requires them to be made accessible to individuals with disabilities.
From the date the EAA came into force, E.U. service providers were given up to five years to implement the law’s requirements (June 28, 2025, is the deadline). As many have pointed out, companies will likely need it considering the burden EAA entails.
It should be noted however that the Web Accessibility Directive cited above, although aimed at public and governmental groups, also has implications for private business. Companies that provide services for government agencies in Europe will need to be sure their accessibility standards measure up. That directive will begin to go into force on September 23, 2019.