This year could finally mean a breakthrough for a barrier-free digital world. In May 2016, the European Commission, the Council, and the Parliament agreed on a transnational implementation of accessible web standards in the public sector. The Directive officially came into effect Dec. 22.

This was a major win for creating websites that are accessible to people regardless of disabilities.

Member states of the European Union and of the European Economic Area now have until Sept. 23, 2018 to transpose the Directive into national law. Public sector bodies must make their websites accessible before Sept. 23, 2019. (2020 if the website is from before Sept. 23, 2018).

Some European countries have been more proactive than others in terms of digital accessibility, both in implementation and sanctioning. In Austria, for example, public sector bodies have been legally required to have accessible websites since January 2016, and they are liable to be sued if they don’t comply. In Spain, public sector bodies can be fined for poor web accessibility, and in Italy, the person responsible for a public sector website can also face financial sanctions if their website is not accessible.

With the EU Directive in effect, every public institution in Europe now must decide how to implement procedures and checkpoints for ensuring barrier-free and compliant web content.

What Exactly Does Accessibility Mean?

Globally, 1 out of 5 people depend on a barrier-free website. Disabilities that make navigating the internet a challenge range from color blindness and visual impairment to cognitive disabilities and hearing problems.

Applying the principles of accessibility to the digital world means that a website must be operable for everyone who intends to access it, without having to rely on help from others.

Accessibility and usability, or user-friendliness, overlap. Websites should be designed to be as inclusive as possible; this includes taking into account physical and cognitive limitations and using easy-to-understand language.

Pressure is Building in the Private Sector

The current EU Directive on Digital Accessibility does not directly affect private companies. However, this does not mean that businesses should ignore web accessibility. In Germany, for example, the Act on the Equalization of Disabled Persons (§ 11 BGG) from 2002 applies to businesses. It states that both private companies and government agencies must always make their websites accessible.

In Norway, it is not just the public sector that is liable to be fined for bad accessibility; businesses are, too. In Switzerland, it is increasingly common for companies to be sued when they violate equality and poor accessibility; settlements in the four-digit range are not uncommon. In the United States, barrier-free internet access is already being enforced beneath legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. In fact, accessibility lawsuits in the U.S. increased by 37% in 2016. A sign of things to come, perhaps?