What are the EU Web Accessibility Directive and the European Accessibility Act?

There are two landmark pieces of web accessibility legislation that UK-based businesses and public sector organisations need to be aware of:

  • The EU Web Accessibility Directive (Directive 2016/2102): This directive requires all public sector websites and apps in EU member states to implement, enforce and maintain accessibility standards for disabled users. Under the terms of the directive, websites and apps that fail to comply with the directive risk fines and legal action. It does not apply to the private sector. 
  • The European Accessibility Act (Directive 2019/882): Until recently, the accessibility of the EU’s private sector was largely unregulated. The EU adopted the European Accessibility Act (EEA) in 2019 aims to change that by standardising accessibility requirements for essential products and services across the EU. Unlike the EU Web Accessibility Directive, the EEA also applies to private businesses. Another key difference that sets the EEA apart from the EU Web Accessibility Directive is that it extends the focus of accessibility beyond web and mobile applications to a broader range of digital products, including terminals, cash machines and ticket machines. Crucially, the EEA applies to products and services that are sold or used within the EU, no matter where those businesses are based. 

Do UK organisations need to comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive?

Yes. The EU Directive on Web Accessibility was implemented locally in the UK as the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. 

The law remains in place even though the UK is no longer a member of the EU. 

The law sets a clear accessibility threshold for public sector bodies; their website and mobile apps must align with WCAG 2.1 Level AA. They must also publish an accessibility statement listing any areas of their site that do not meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards.  

All public sector organisation websites that aren’t exempt from the law should already comply with its standards. They have until June 2021 to ensure their apps are also compliant. If they aren’t, they may be subject to legal action. 

Do UK Organizations need to comply with the European Accessibility Act? 

No and yes. As of May 2021, the EEA is not law in the UK. While negotiations about the EEA began while the UK was still a member state of the EU, the UK left before it could be written into UK law. Non-EU states are not required to bring the EEA into law, though they still have the option to do so. The UK government has not confirmed whether it will transpose the EEA into local law. Coupled with a freeze on the automatic adoption of new EU directives in the UK and a lack of commitment from Westminster, it’s possible that the EAA may never become UK law.  

However, this does not mean that UK organisations can or should ignore the EEA.

This is where things get a bit complicated. Any private sector organisation selling products and services within the EU does need to comply with the EEA. So, if you’re a UK-based business selling products or services in an EU member state, your website will need to comply with the EEA. This suggests that unless UK private sector businesses want to create a two-level accessibility system; one for the UK market and for the EU market, they will benefit from applying the EEA guidelines to all their products and services to avoid the damaging scenario of providing a less accessible product/service within the UK and limiting their market opportunities abroad.  

The EEA itself does not refer to any concrete technical accessibility standards that businesses must comply with, such as WCAG. It is up to individual member states to decide how to achieve the aims of any EU directive. However, it would seem likely that most will choose to adhere to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. With that being the likely standard, UK businesses that want to align with the EAA would do well to ensure their web services and products align with WCAG 2.1 Level AA requirements

When do the European Accessibility Act and the EU Accessibility Directive take effect?

The EU Web Accessibility Directive obligated the UK to implement the directive into national law in three phases, two of which have already passed, meaning all public sector websites should now be accessible in the UK. The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 timeline was as follows:

  • Public sector websites created after 23 September 2018 needed to comply with the requirements from 23 September, 2019
  • Public sector websites created before 23 September 2018 needed to comply with the requirements from 23 September, 2020
  • Ongoing: Public sector mobile applications need to comply with the requirements from 23 June, 2021

The EEA was officially adopted by the EU in June 2019. Member states must now adhere to the following timeline:

  • Transposition phase: By 28 July, 2022, member states must translate and adopt the EEA into their respective national laws
  • Implementation: By 28 July, 2025, member states must have applied their national laws domestically
  • Enforcement: From July 2025

How do the EU Web Accessibility Directive and the European Accessibility Act differ from WCAG?

The biggest difference between the EU directives and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is that the former are legally binding, while WCAG is simply a set of accessibility guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium – meaning they have no legal standing on their own.

Enforcement is another area where the two diverge. WCAG is merely a set of guidelines. While highly influential globally, they are not legally enforceable. On the other hand, organisations that don’t meet the EU directives’ requirements risk being fined or having legal action brought against them.

While the EAA does not reference any specific technical standard for compliance, the EU Directive specifically references WCAG 2.1 Level AA as its yardstick for accessibility. By codifying WCAG principles in its Web Accessibility Directive, the EU legally requires its member states to abide by WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards. This goes a long way toward establishing a set of common rules – rooted in WCAG – for online accessibility in the EU public sector.

How does the EU Web Accessibility Directive impact UK private sector organizations?

The EU Web Accessibility Directive is primarily aimed at public sector organisations within the EU. It does not apply to the private sector. However, there are a few exceptions where private sector businesses in the UK may have to adhere to it.

These exceptions include third-party organisations that routinely do business with or provide products and services to public sector organisations, like government websites.

How does the European Accessibility Act impact UK private sector organizations?

The EAA applies to businesses selling products or services that 1) are highly important for disabled people, and 2) have widely ranging accessibility requirements across the member states.

Essentially, the EAA will standardise accessibility rules for important products and services used by disabled people and the ageing population. The act covers the following hardware, software, websites and services:

  • Computers and operating systems
  • ATMs, ticketing and check-in machines
  • Smartphones and tablets
  • TV equipment related to digital television services
  • Telephony services and related equipment
  • Access to audio-visual media services such as television broadcast and related consumer equipment
  • Services related to air, bus, rail and waterborne passenger transport (websites, apps, ticketing services etc.)
  • Banking services
  • eBooks and eReaders
  • Emergency numbers
  • Ecommerce websites and apps 

The EAA’s accessibility requirements apply to all businesses unless they would change the nature of the product/service or if they would result in an unjustifiable financial burden for the business (this mainly applies to so-called ‘micro-enterprises’ with fewer than 10 employees and below certain financial thresholds).

While UK-based businesses are not subject to the EEA within the UK itself, the EEA does apply to products and services sold within the EU, regardless of where the business is based. That means that UK-based businesses that trade within the EU should get ahead of the law by developing their products and services with the principles of inclusive design and the EAA in mind.

You can learn more about the EAA in this FAQ 

How to be compliant with the EU accessibility laws

With one in five people in the UK living with a long-term illness, impairment or disability accessibility – and that number expected to rise with an ageing population, web accessibility should still be top of mind for UK organisations, notwithstanding the domestic status of EU laws present and future. After all, there remains a significant business case for accessibility in the UK, with the ‘Purple Pound’ worth up to £274 billion in revenue.

To stay compliant with the EU Web Accessibility Directive and align with the European Accessibility Act and expand their market reach online, UK organisations should complete the following:

Publish an accessibility statement. This must be regularly updated to accurately reflect your website’s accessibility status.

Meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA accessibility standards. All mobile and web apps should meet the success criteria for Level AA.

Manual self-assessment of your website’s accessibility status can be tough and requires familiarity with the WCAG technical standards. If you’re unsure about the accessibility status of your website and whether or not it meets WCAG standards, running an automated accessibility check is a good starting point. Siteimprove offers a fast and free accessibility checker that scans your website for common WCAG-violating accessibility issues. From here you can make a plan to fix the problems found based on WCAG conformance level (A, AA or AAA). Link to checker.

While EU directives can sometimes make digital accessibility sound like a tick-box exercise, it’s important to remember that it is an ongoing, people-led process, not a project. That means your website should reflect the inclusive spirit – and not just the letter – of the law. For organisations looking for a tool to help them work towards – and maintain – WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards (or even AAA), Siteimprove offers a mix of automated and manual accessibility testing services. These services make sure your website works in the way it’s supposed to for people with disabilities in real life settings. Contact us to arrange a demo