Decoding the Web Accessibility Directive: A Comprehensive Guide for EU Startups

Bridging the Gap between Legislation, Technical Standards and Global Best Practices

Key Takeaways:

  • The European Union’s Web Accessibility Directive (WAD) 2016/2102 enforces the accessibility of online content and mobile apps of all public sector bodies, with startups aiming to work with the public sector needing to comply.
  • Harmonised technical standards provide a legal ‘presumption of conformity’, meaning if an application or website meets the requirements of these standards, it’s deemed ‘accessible’ under WAD.
  • The EN 301 549 standard, detailing ‘Accessibility requirements for ICT products and services’, supports the WAD.
  • W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a crucial basis for the EN 301 549 standard, although meeting all the success criteria of WCAG 2.1 won’t ensure full conformity with WAD.
  • EU startups need to prioritize web accessibility to ensure their products and services are inclusive and compliant with the directives.

Introduction: Importance of Digital Accessibility

The European Union, committed to promoting diversity, inclusion, and creating a ‘Union of Equality,’ has embraced digital accessibility as a key objective. With public services and information becoming increasingly digitized, ensuring online accessibility for all individuals, regardless of abilities, is not just a legal obligation but an ethical responsibility. This necessity gave birth to the Web Accessibility Directive (WAD) in 2016, but understanding its connection to technical standards and global best practices can be challenging.

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Understanding the Legislation: The Web Accessibility Directive

The WAD, or Directive (EU) 2016/2102, mandates that all public sector bodies within the EU make their online content and mobile applications accessible to everyone. To standardise what ‘accessible’ means in this context, WAD is supported by a harmonised technical standard that offers a ‘presumption of conformity’. Simply put, if a website or mobile app complies with the technical requirements defined in the standard, it’s assumed to be ‘accessible’ under the WAD. Although Member States can set stricter technical requirements if they wish, adhering to this standard ensures conformity with the WAD.

The Technical Standard: EN 301 549

The harmonised technical standard supporting WAD, ‘EN 301 549 – Accessibility requirements for ICT products and services’, was developed jointly by three European Standards Organisations (ESOs) – ETSI, CEN and CENELEC. A specific version of this standard needs to be published in the Official Journal of the EU to gain legal force under European law.

To date, two versions of EN 301 549 have been harmonised:

  • Version EN 301 549 v2.1.2, harmonised in December 2018.
  • The latest version, EN 301 549 v3.2.1, which became the sole relevant standard on 12 February 2022.

Each version of EN 301 549 improves on the last, helping to advance digital accessibility across the EU.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Their Relevance

EN 301 549 borrows heavily from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines v2.1 (WCAG 2.1), published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The WCAG 2.1, internationally recognised standards for creating web content, are considered best practice and widely used. However, merely meeting all the success criteria of WCAG 2.1 will not ensure conformity with the WAD, as EN 301 549 includes additional requirements not part of WCAG 2.1.

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The Evolution of Technical Standards and Harmonisation

When the WAD was published in 2016, there was no standard to ensure conformity. An existing standard for ‘accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe’ (EN 301 549 v1.1.2) was referenced in the directive, which acted as the minimum requirement until a new standard was developed. This evolution continued with the publication of EN 301 549 v2.1.2 in August 2018, and eventually led to the current version, EN 301 549 v3.2.1, published in March 2021.

What Does this Mean for EU Startups?

Web accessibility is not only a legal requirement for EU startups targeting public sector clients, but it is also an ethical responsibility towards an inclusive society. Ensuring that products and services meet the technical standards will not only ensure conformity with the WAD but will also broaden their user base and improve overall user experience. By prioritising web accessibility, startups can contribute to an inclusive digital society while gaining a competitive edge in a diverse market.

The Web Accessibility Directive, backed by technical standards and globally recognised best practices, has made digital accessibility a core part of the EU’s commitment to inclusion and equality. By complying with these directives and standards, startups can ensure that their products and services are inclusive, accessible, and poised for success in the diverse European market.

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