Digital accessibility became even more important during the COVID pandemic, and remains essential for making Europe fit for the digital age. With the rapid growth of information and interactive services provided through the web and mobile devices, a part of the population risks being excluded from basic services from both the private and public sector such as getting information from public services, grocery shopping, medical consultations, online banking, messaging and video-calling services, to name but a few.
Simple changes that make websites and apps more “accessible” can help 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.
Digital accessibility is not just an issue of technical standards, web architecture and design. It is also a right for persons with disabilities to access information and communication technologies on an equal basis with everyone else, to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community (EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Art 26: Integration of persons with disabilities: "The Union recognises and respects the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community"). And it is 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 EU has therefore legislated to support the rights of persons with disabilities.
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 play a full and active part in the digital economy and society
The Directive obliges websites and apps of public sector bodies to be “more accessible”. There are a limited number of exceptions that include broadcasters and live streaming. A technical standard supports the directive, clarifying what is expected by the term “accessible”.
The Directive requires:
- an accessibility statement for each website and mobile app, stating non-accessible content and alternatives as well as contacts;
- 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 to the Commission every three years.
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 reviewed the Web Accessibility Directive in 2022. The review took into account the results of a public consultation held in 2021 that gathered views on the application of the Directive in practice, the Member States’ first accessibility monitoring reports and a supporting study.
The Commission report is published on the EUR-Lex portal:
These documents and the consultation results are also published on the Have your say portal.
Study supporting the review of the Web Accessibility Directive
This study supported the review of the Web Accessibility Directive and its implementing acts.
The study and easy read versions are published on the EU Publications portal:
Implementation of the Web Accessibility Directive
In October 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
A third implementing decision on the harmonised standard for websites and mobile applications that provides for the presumption of conformity with the Directive was adopted in December 2018 and then amended in August 2021. Therefore the current harmonised standard is EN 301 549 V3.2.1 (2021-03) PDF, which is in line with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1. Further amendments may happen in the future should an update to the standard need to be harmonised. More information is available here.
The Web Accessibility Directive Expert Group (WADEX) brings together Member State representatives to support the implementation of the Directive, facilitate cooperation between Member States and stakeholders and exchange best practices.
Transposition of the Web Accessibility Directive
All Member States have transposed the Directive into national law (deadline was 23 September 2018).
Monitoring of the Web Accessibility Directive
The Web Accessibility Directive requires Member States to periodically monitor the compliance of websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies with the accessibility requirements.
Since 2021, and every three years thereafter, Member States publish and submit to the Commission a report on the outcome of the monitoring and use of enforcement.
The first Member State monitoring reports from 2021 are made available on Commission’s website.
The next series of reports is due in December 2024.
Support via financing of research and pilot projects
The Commission provides financial support to research and deploy web accessibility and accessible technology solutions.
Recent examples of projects include:
- WAI-CooP, a 'Communities of Practice' project, supports the implementation of international standards for digital accessibility by establishing a vendor-neutral overview of available training, tools, and resources, analyzing technological advancements, coordinating with relevant research and development efforts, and providing opportunities for key stakeholders to share resources and exchange best practices.
- 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.