What Is the European Web Accessibility Directive?

Last updated: 11/13/2019

How is the EU Web Accessibility Directive different from WCAG?
Who does the EU Web Accessibility Directive cover?
What does the directive require?
How does the directive impact private organizations?
When does the directive take effect?

It’s a busy time for online accessibility experts in the European Union. The much-discussed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG 2.1) were published in June 2018, representing the most wide-reaching overhaul of accessibility standards to date. Then, right on the heels of WCAG 2.1 was the first implementation deadline of the EU Web Accessibility Directive in September 2018, when EU member states needed to transpose the directive into their national laws.

While there is a good deal of overlap between the EU Web Accessibility Directive and WCAG, it is worth exploring what sets the two initiatives apart, as well as the implications for both public and private organizations.

The EU Web Accessibility Directive was born out of an ongoing effort to comprehensively address accessibility issues across the European Union. Starting in the early 2000s and carrying into initiatives such as 2010’s European Disability Strategy and the Mandate 376 Accessible ICT Procurement Toolkit, the EU’s governing bodies have been global leaders in creative, functional approaches to providing equal online access for users of all abilities.

The passage of the Web Accessibility Directive in 2016 marked the EU’s most comprehensive accessibility effort to date. The 15-page directive requires all public-sector websites and applications in EU member states to implement, enforce, and maintain a uniform set of accessibility standards. Sites and apps that fail to comply with the directive risk fines and other legal penalties, along with the negative publicity and consumer backlash that comes with operating an exclusionary site.

How is the EU Web Accessibility Directive different from WCAG?

The core of the EU Web Accessibility Directive is, essentially, WCAG 2.0. The directive itself does not actually include any of the rules that websites and apps need to follow to stay in compliance. To find the actual regulations, readers are referred to Standard EN 301 549 of the Accessible ICT Procurement Toolkit, which itself refers to WCAG 2.1 standards for further clarification.

So if the underlying rules are identical, why are both measures necessary? It basically boils down to enforcement. WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 are sets of guidelines laid out by the World Wide Web Consortium—highly influential but not legally enforceable on their own. By enshrining the principles of WCAG in the Web Accessibility Directive, the European Union is officially requiring its member states to abide by WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards. It isn’t exactly a one-size-fits-all legislation, as each member state will still determine the penalties for failure to comply, but the directive goes a long way toward establishing uniform rules for online accessibility in the EU.

Who does the EU Web Accessibility Directive cover?

Officially, the Web Accessibility Directive applies to public-sector bodies. That includes websites such as:

  • State, regional, and local authorities
  • Bodies governed by public law and financed via public contract, as defined in point (4) of Article 2(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU
  • Associations formed by those above, if those associations are established for the specific purpose of meeting needs of general interest, and do not have an industrial or commercial character

There are some exclusions, including public service broadcasters, most schools, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that do not provide services “essential to the public” or address the needs for persons with disabilities. For the most part, though, if a website is operated by a public or governmental entity, the EU Web Accessibility Directive is in effect. Each EU member state has the right to broaden the scope of the directive to include other sectors and industries.

What does the directive require?

The specifics of the Web Accessibility Directive are laid out at great length in the WCAG 2.1 guidelines, but the directive itself does include some fairly high-level expectations for public websites and apps, including the responsibilities to:

  • Make website and mobile app content accessible to everyone
  • Provide a public accessibility statement
  • Provide a feedback mechanism for users to report inaccessible content
  • Provide a link to the enforcement procedure

There are also a few categories of content not subject to the rules, including most time-based media (generally audio and video content), mapping services, third-party content, and content located on extranet and intranet websites published before the cutoff of September 23, 2019.

How does the directive impact private organizations?

Although the Web Accessibility Directive only specifically applies to public-sector websites and apps, it will have a noticeable impact on many private companies as well. Organizations that regularly do business with or provide products or services (such as software) to governmental sites will need to be sure that their accessibility standards measure up. Private-sector companies that offer similar services to those provided by public sites may also risk alienating users with disabilities if their websites or apps provide a less accessible experience.

When does the directive take effect?

While the directive was originally passed in 2016, the EU has given member states a fairly generous time frame in which to implement all of the required accessibility changes.

    • Transposition Phase: Effective September 23, 2018, Member states must have a reasonable plan in place for incorporating the accessibility directive into their national legislation
    • Implementing Acts: Effective December 23, 2018, Member states must have each of the following in place for all public-sector websites and apps, based on model statements and methods posted by the European Commission:
      • A publicly posted, regularly updated accessibility statement explaining accessible content standards and providing users with a link to provide feedback
      • An accessible feedback mechanism
      • An enforcement procedure detailing penalties and processes for non-compliance
      • Standards for monitoring methodology and reporting
      • Uniform technical specifications for mobile applications

Compliance phase

Establishes deadlines for full EU Website Accessibility Directive compliance:

      • New websites (published after September 23, 2018): Effective September 23, 2019
      • Older websites (published before September 23, 2018): Effective September 23, 2020
      • Mobile applications: Effective June 23, 2021

Even for organizations that have taken a proactive approach to online accessibility, the onset of the new directive likely represents a good deal of work, and this article provides only a bare overview of all the requirements for compliance.

For a more thorough overview of the EU Web Accessibility Directive, please download our white paper on the topic. The road to accessibility may not be an easy one, but the European Union’s efforts at establishing comprehensive equal access for all member states should lead to a more usable and welcoming internet for people of all abilities.