Digital accessibility has become even more important due to the rapid growth of information and interactive services provided through the web and mobile devices. Examples include online banking and shopping, accessing public services, and messaging and video-calling services.
Simple changes that make websites and apps more user-friendly can bring huge improvements for everyone, not just users with disabilities. For instance, being able to listen to a text when there is not enough light to read or when multitasking, or reading subtitles to a video in a noisy environment. Businesses with accessible services can reach a larger, mostly untapped customer base, and experience an economic gain from doing so. An estimated 100 million people in the EU have some form of disability, and so represent an important market.
Web accessibility is not only about technical standards, web architecture and design. It is a matter of political will and of moral obligation, enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Article 9 of the Convention, to which the EU and its Member States are party, requires that appropriate measures are taken to ensure access for persons with disabilities, on equal basis with others, to information and communication technologies, including the Internet.
The Web Accessibility Directive
The Web Accessibility Directive (Directive (EU) 2016/2102) has been in force since 22 December 2016 and provides people with disabilities with better access to websites and mobile apps of public services.
The rules laid down in the Directive reflect the Commission's ongoing work to build a social and inclusive European 'Union of equality', where all Europeans can take a full and active part in the digital economy and society.
The Directive obliges websites and apps of public sector bodies to meet specific technical accessibility standards. There are a limited number of exceptions that include broadcasters and live streaming.
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 a non-accessible content;
- regular monitoring of public sector websites and apps by Member States, and reporting on the results.
The Directive complements the European Accessibility Act which covers a wide range of products and services also in the private sector. Further European legislation supports people with disabilities in other areas including electronic communications, audio-visual media services, ebooks, eCommerce and ICT equipment. Highlights of how these EU policies affect digital accessibility are in the infographic on 'Digital Economy and Society' legislation.
Review of the Web Accessibility Directive
The European Commission will review the application of the Web Accessibility Directive by June 2022, with the findings made public soon after.
Key questions are:
- Are the Directive and its implementing acts still relevant and fit for purpose, given other accessibility related laws and changes in technology?
- Has the Directive harmonised the web accessibility market?
- Has the Directive strengthened social inclusion – has it made it easier for persons with disabilities to access public services and information?
- Are further actions needed for a successful implementation?
A public consultation opened on 19 July 2021 to allow the public, especially persons with disabilities, to express their views on the Directive, the state of web accessibility, and measures or actions for improvement. The consultation will remain open until 25 October 2021.
For the first time, a very short easy-to-read questionnaire was also published in all EU languages, accessible to everyone, including persons with cognitive disabilities.
To complement the public consultation, there will be additional specific consultations of key stakeholders.
Implementation of the Web Accessibility Directive
In 2018, the European Commission adopted two implementing decisions ensuring uniform conditions for the implementation of the Directive:
- Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2018/1523 establishing a model accessibility statement
- Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2018/1524 establishing a monitoring methodology and the arrangements for reporting by Member States
Also, on 12 August 2021, the Commission also published an implementing decision on the harmonised standard for websites and mobile applications that provides for the presumption of conformity with the Directive. This decision updated the harmonised standard to be EN 301 549 V3.2.1 (2021-03) PDF, which is in line with the most recent Web Content Accessibility Guidelines: WCAG 2.1.
The European Commission set up the Web Accessibility Directive Expert Group (WADEX) to support the implementation of the Directive, to facilitate cooperation between Member States and stakeholders and to exchange best practices in the field of web accessibility.
Transposition of the Web Accessibility Directive
Member States had until 23 September 2018 to transpose the Directive into national law. The Commission is working to ensure a full and correct transposition of the Directive.
Support via financing of research and pilot projects
The Commission is providing financial support to research web accessibility and accessible technology, and to the deployment of solutions.
Recent examples of projects include:
- WAI-Tools, which brings together key partners from industry, government and the research community to establish uniform accessibility testing rules;
- WADcher, which develops a platform for accessibility evaluation, monitoring and reporting;
- WAI-Guide, which designs educational programmes for web accessibility, produces guidance for authoring tools and addresses accessibility aspects of emerging technologies, such as immersive environments and the web of things;
- We4Authors, which facilitates the incorporation of accessibility features as the default option in authoring tools.