Accessibility Laws in the E.U.: Is WCAG Embraced in Europe?

Published November 6, 2022

Businesses that incorporate the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) benefit from a more inclusive culture and brand messaging. So it's no surprise that WCAG is the most widely used digital accessibility guideline in the United States.

This accessibility ideal is true for businesses everywhere, but is WCAG followed outside the U.S.?

Here we examine web accessibility standards in the European Union.

Understanding the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which generates web standards like HTML and CSS.

WCAG was initially published in 1999 to make the web more accessible for all, especially individuals with disabilities. Since its release, it’s been through several revisions, including the WCAG 2.2 draft scheduled for publication in the summer of 2022.

WCAG guidelines are organized into four principles: content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Companies can confirm they've met WCAG standards through "conformance," or testable accessibility requirements called Success Criterion.

In 2012, WCAG 2.0 was accepted into the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as ISO/IEC 40500:2012. And while WCAG itself is not a law, it’s the standard to which many laws mandating digital accessibility defer.

Consequences for not complying with WCAG vary depending on the country or region. For example, U.S. WCAG compliance laws apply to federal organizations and many state and local government agencies. Private companies must follow ADA standards more generally, but compliance with WCAG is far more complex.

Private websites in the U.S. are typically only required by law to meet WCAG standards if they are run with federal funding or under contract with a federal agency. However, they still must ensure equal access to their programs and services in places of public accommodation with or without federal funding, which the Department of Justice has consistently interpreted as including public-facing websites. 

Web accessibility laws in the E.U.

The European Union follows the European Accessibility Act (EAA). Similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, the EAA requires all members of the E.U. to provide accessible products and services, including e-commerce, banking services, smartphones, ticketing and check-in, and more.

The Web Accessibility Directive was implemented in 2016 to include web accessibility. According to the official European Union website, the Directive requires:

  • An accessibility statement for each website and mobile app.
  • A feedback mechanism so users can flag accessibility problems or request information published in non-accessible content.
  • Regular monitoring of public sector websites and apps by the Member States and reporting on the results.

The Web Accessibility Directive and EAA are based on WCAG standards, though they differ significantly.

The E.U. Web Directive requires public sector websites and third-party vendors to meet accessibility standards. However, the EAA is in the early stages of requiring most private websites to follow accessibility regulations by June 2025.

Why the E.U. needs accessible internet

Of the 447 million residents in the EU, over 20 percent (100 million people) currently have a disability. Along with that group, internet access difficulties are expected to rise in older communities.

Over 9 out of 10 E.U. households have internet access, and four-fifths (80 percent) use it daily. Globally, internet, app, and smartphone use continue to grow as online shopping, banking, and accessing public services increase.

As internet use becomes an everyday staple in education, commerce, recreation, and more, it is more important to be accessible to everyone.

Still, though demand only grows for more accessible internet, the reality is less accommodating. 

Per the Web Accessibility Directive, the E.U. ran the world's largest accessibility test, including in-depth research from all of its government agency websites. The findings revealed that only 4 percent of public sector websites fully complied with WCAG standards, with mobile apps at just 8 percent.

Of many essential findings that surfaced amid the test, the most clearly stated was the need for streamlined accessibility across all E.U. websites.

E.U. web accessibility influences all of Europe

The European Union's upcoming EAA private-sector web accessibility regulations will be the first of its kind in Europe. A significant step in the direction of a more accessible internet globally.

Though the EAA is not to be enforced until 2025, the E.U. still encourages websites to meet WCAG and ISO/IEC 40500 guidelines as much as possible.

More accessible websites benefit individuals, but they also help companies thrive.

The E.U. Commission estimates that eliminating inaccessible barriers can reduce company costs by up to 50 percent. Also, streamlined accessibility standards expand company markets and increase overall success.

Conclusion

There are many ways businesses can improve their accessibility and be more user-friendly. The European Disability Forum relays a few, including adding alternative text, naming images by description rather than at random, dividing information into separate blocks, and using semantic elements like paragraph headings for clarity.

Furthermore, the need for digital inclusion and user-friendly websites goes beyond web architecture and design. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) expresses the moral argument for web accessibility,

To cement accessibility as a core development objective, viewing accessibility as a global public good helps propel the principle of inclusion in web accessibility.

Web accessibility is about equal access to one of the most valuable and collaborative tools we have. So it's only fitting that we continue to push towards a more accessible internet for all, regardless of disability.

 

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