Background: the EU Web Accessibility Directive (WAD)

Web technologies and mobile apps have become an essential means to delivering and accessing information and services. With 1 in 4 people in the EU aged 16 or over suffering from a long-term disability and an ageing population, web accessibility has become crucial. Web accessibility means that everyone, including persons with disabilities, will be able to better perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Internet. Web accessibility thus enables the participation of millions of Europeans that may otherwise be at risk of exclusion from the digital society.

The EU has, and is, doing much to raise awareness of digital inclusion and accessibility among the design, development, usability, and related communities who build, shape, fund and influence technology and its use, to ensure that European Digital Economy and Society legislation is there for everyone, regardless of their ability (see Infographic: Digital Inclusion in the EU).

A major initiative to address this is the EU Directive on the “Accessibility of the Websites and Mobile Applications of Public Sector Bodies” that came into force on 26/10/2016, also known as the Web Accessibility Directive (WAD), which establishes accessibility requirements for the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies.

The WAD defines accessibility as “principles and techniques to be observed when designing, constructing, maintaining, and updating websites and mobile applications in order to make them more accessible to users, in particular persons with disabilities”. The content of websites and mobile applications includes textual as well as non-textual information, downloadable documents and forms, and two-way interaction such as the processing of digital forms and the completion of authentication, identification, and payment processes.

The WAD’s accessibility requirements describe what must be achieved for the user to be able to perceive, operate, interpret, and understand a website, a mobile application and related content. But it does not specify what technology should be selected for each website, online information, or mobile application. WAD defines mobile applications as “application software designed and developed, by or on behalf of public sector bodies, for use by the general public on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. It does not include the software that controls those devices (mobile operating systems) or hardware”.

The WAD aims to ensure that the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies are made more accessible based on common accessibility requirements. It defines the four principles of accessibility as (based upon the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, WCAG 2.1, W3C Recommendation 05 June 2018):

  • perceivability, meaning that information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive;
  • operability, meaning that user interface components and navigation must be operable;
  • understandability, meaning that information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable; and
  • robustness, meaning that content must be robust enough to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

European Accessibility Act

While the WAD specifically addresses the accessibility of websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies, and the Harmonised European Standard Accessibility requirements for ICT products and services (EN 301 549 V2.1.2, 2018-08) addresses those and some additional ICT services, the European Accessibility Act (EAA) addresses the much broader accessibility of all ICT services. The EAA aims to improve the functioning of the EU internal market for accessible products and services by removing barriers created by divergent legislation. This facilitates the work of companies and brings benefits for persons with disabilities and elderly people in the EU.

After consulting with stakeholders and experts on accessibility and considering the obligations deriving from the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities the Commission identified the following products and services should be addressed by the EAA, as having the highest risk of being concerned with diverging accessibility requirements across the EU countries:

  • computers and operating systems
  • ATMs, ticketing and check-in machines
  • smartphones
  • TV equipment related to digital television services
  • telephony services and related equipment
  • audio-visual media services such as television broadcast and related consumer equipment
  • services related to air, bus, rail and waterborne passenger transport
  • banking services
  • e-books
  • e-commerce

While there is some overlap with the WAD, the EAA is much broader in scope, so that businesses benefit from:

  • common rules on accessibility in the EU, leading to costs reduction
  • easier cross-border trading
  • more market opportunities for their accessible products and services

While persons with disabilities and elderly people benefit from:

  • more accessible products and services in the market 
  • accessible products and services at more competitive prices
  • fewer barriers when accessing education and the open labour market
  • more jobs available where accessibility expertise is needed

The EU co-legislators adopted the EAA directive in April 2019. It is important to ensure, as the accessibility requirements are the same as under the WAD, that consistency is kept when assessing technical compliance with the accessibility requirements. However, enforcement is very different in both directives, with the EAA stressing the European CEN standard 17161 on accessibility following Design for All.

WADcher is built with the intention of supporting the different stakeholders when addressing the different legal requirements, while supporting a better and streamlined business process. The Web Accessibility Directive (WAD), its requirements and monitoring procedures, and how WAD compliance can be achieved using WADcher is described in the project’s open e-book “WAD and How to be Compliant”.