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Web Accessibility Directive — Standards and harmonisation

EU legislation, technical standards and W3C international best practice on web accessibility.

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Introduction

Digital accessibility is an important aspect of the European Commission’s commitment to inclusion, diversity, and creating a 'Union of equality'. Public services and information, which used to be only available in physical offices or printed format, are being replaced or complemented by online equivalents. Ensuring that these online services are accessible to all persons, irrespective of abilities, is essential for an inclusive society.

EU-wide digital accessibility legislation was adopted in 2016 and came into full effect in June 2021. However, the connection between the EU legislation, the technical standard in support of it, and the standards and support materials developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) can be hard to grasp. This article aims to explain the links.

The legislation

Directive (EU) 2016/2102 on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies, the 'Web Accessibility Directive' or 'WAD', obliges all public sector bodies in the EU to make their online websites and mobile apps accessible. A summary of the Directive is available in all official languages.

To ensure there is a common understanding of what is meant by 'accessible' in this context, the WAD is supported by a harmonised technical standard that offers a legal 'presumption of conformity'. This means that if the content of a website or mobile app meets all the applicable technical requirements defined in the standard, it is assumed to be 'accessible' under the WAD. Member States are not obliged to follow this standard, as they can choose to impose stricter technical requirements if they wish, but following the standard guarantees conformity with the WAD.

The technical standard

For a technical standard to become a harmonised European standard or norm (sometimes referred to as a 'HEN'), with legal force under European law, two conditions apply:

  • The standard is developed by one or more of the three European Standards Organisations under a mandate from the European Commission. These organisations, also known as ESOs, are: ETSI, CEN and CENELEC).
  • A reference to the specific version of the standard must be published in the Official Journal of the EU.

The standard developed jointly by the three ESOs to support the WAD is 'EN 301 549  - Accessibility requirements for ICT products and services'.

Only 2 versions of standard EN 301 549 have been harmonised to date:

  1. version EN 301 549 v2.1.2, harmonised in December 2018;
  2. the latest version EN 301 549 v3.2.1, which becomes the sole relevant standard on 12 February 2022.

A period of overlap is provided for, so that Member States have time to adapt to the new version.

Not all versions of a technical standard are necessarily harmonised. It is up to the European Commission to decide whether to harmonise a standard or not, by publishing a reference. If a version is not harmonised, it does not have legal effect at European level, although it could still be useful for other purposes.

History of the technical standards and harmonisation

When the WAD was published in December 2016, there was no standard to provide a presumption of conformity. However, a standard for the 'accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe' (EN 301 549 v1.1.2) had already been published in April 2015 through a previous standardisation mandate (Mandate 376). So WAD Article 6 mentions EN 301 549 v1.1.2, as setting minimum requirements, pending the drafting of a new standard under a new Mandate 554.

The new standard, 'accessibility requirements for ICT products and services' (EN 301 549 v2.1.2), was published in August 2018. It was referenced in the Official Journal on 20th December 2018 and was a significant improvement on v1.1.2.

In order to improve the standard from an editorial perspective as well as to correct some inconsistencies, a new version of the standard (EN 301 549 v3.1.1) was published in November 2019 and submitted for harmonisation. In the end, this version was never harmonised (referenced in the OJ). Instead, v3.2.1, published in March 2021, was harmonised on 18 August 2021.

The actual requirements

EN 301 549 draws heavily from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines v2.1, published by the W3C and known as WCAG 2.1. These WCAG are internationally recognised requirements for producing web content. They are considered best practice, and are very widely used.

However, EN 301 549 v2.1.2 and v3.2.1 each include requirements that are not part of WCAG 2.1. EN 301 549 also includes requirements that are not relevant to the WAD, for example accessibility requirements of computer hardware systems. The requirements of the standard that are relevant to the WAD are defined in Annex A.

It is important to note that versions of WCAG later than 2.1 are not automatically relevant to the WAD. New or updated requirements in later versions of WCAG, while practically useful, only become legally relevant if they are included in Annex A of a harmonised version of EN 301 549 that is referenced in the Official Journal.

Since EN 301 549 goes further than the requirements of the WCAG, meeting all the success criteria of WCAG 2.1 will not ensure a presumption of conformity with the WAD. For further details on these differences, see 'latest changes to the standard'.

Requirements and standardisation history

The table below summarises the requirements and standardisation history

VersionRelease DateStandardisation MandateHarmonisation DateBased on WCAG
1.1.2April 2015Mandate 376Not harmonised. Acted as the standard to follow until a harmonised standard was available, as defined in article 6 of the WAD.v2.0
2.1.2August 2018Mandate 554

20th December 2018

v2.1
3.1.1November 2019Mandate 554Not harmonisedv2.1
3.2.1March 2021Mandate 55412th August 2021v2.1

Useful links

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Big Picture

Web Accessibility

Web accessibility allows everyone, including people with disabilities, to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with the Internet.

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