One in four European adults have disabilities. That’s 87 million people who may need assistive services to access your company’s digital services, including websites. Removing digital barriers has always been the right thing to do. Soon, however, accessible web design will also become a matter of law for companies that operate within the European Union.
In 2019, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union passed the European Accessibility Act (EAA), or EU Directive 2019/882. The EAA seeks to unify accessibility requirements for products and services in the European marketplace—but it doesn’t provide technical requirements for digital accessibility. These it leaves up to member states.
Each EU member state must pass legislation that conforms to the EAA’s guidelines, and the deadline for these laws is June 2022. If your company operates within the European Union, now’s the time to act.
We talked to business owners working to bring their websites into compliance with expected accessibility laws in EU member states. Here’s what they had to share about the EU Accessibility Act—and how it might affect your digital services.
The Purpose and Scope of the European Accessibility Act
While the EAA targets discrimination against people with disabilities in EU member states, it doesn’t read like civil rights legislation. Instead, the directive’s goals are framed in economic terms. The EAA seeks to “contribute to the proper functioning of the internal market by approximating laws, regulations, and administrative provisions … as regards accessibility requirements for certain products and services.”
In other words, it’s trying to standardize accessibility laws for consistency in an open market.
Before now, each member state of the European Union had different standards of accessibility. This led to poor selection and made products costly for consumers. We can expect that under the European Accessibility Act, each member state will now have the same accessibility rules. It will become easier for private businesses to be compliant, and this will increase the selection of alternatives for consumers.
In addition to creating a more inclusive European society, standardized accessibility rules will create bottom-line benefits for companies, Cordes says. “Businesses will benefit from the common accessibility rules because they will reduce costs, provide easier trading across borders, and offer more opportunities,” he says.
To get these benefits, however, companies may have to redesign websites and other digital services. The EAA applies to a broad range of products beyond websites, including:
- Computer hardware and operating systems
- Self-service terminals such as ATMs and ticketing machines
- e-Commerce services
- Electronic communications systems
In short, if you operate digital or communications systems within the EU, you’ll have to comply with EAA requirements—and with the arrival of a key EAA deadline, it’s time to start investing in digital accessibility.
Understanding the European Accessibility Act’s June 2022 Deadline
If you’re reading this after June 2022, there’s no need to panic. That deadline won’t immediately bring your website into noncompliance with new laws. It’s just the date by which EU member states must adopt accessibility laws that comply with the EAA. As the text of the law puts it:
“Member States shall adopt and publish, by 28 June 2022, the laws, regulations, and administrative provisions necessary to comply with this Directive. They shall immediately communicate the text of those measures to the Commission.”
European nations don’t necessarily have to start enforcing these laws until June 2025.
But there are plenty of reasons why every company should work toward greater digital accessibility right now: inclusion, bigger audiences, and better experiences for all users, for instance. But legal enforcement of new accessibility laws may not arrive as soon as the June 2022 deadline implies.
Regardless of when EAA laws go into effect, there’s still the question of how to comply. Looking at the text of the EU Accessibility Act, here are some of our best guesses.
Digital Design for Compliance with the European Accessibility Act
The EU Accessibility Act isn’t a list of accessibility standards. It’s more of a guidance document for crafting accessibility legislation. (That’s how EU directives work; they aren’t laws, but they establish certain conditions that national laws should meet.) As we publish this document, European nations haven’t yet updated laws to comply with the EAA. So take all this with a grain of salt.
That said, the text of the EAA provides some clues about what business owners should expect. For instance, the Directive refers explicitly to the four principles of web accessibility, stating that these principles are “relevant for this Directive.” According to these principles, web content must be:
- Perceivable. Both content and user interfaces must be presented in ways that all users can perceive. That typically requires multimodal presentation (text and audio, for instance), because not everyone consumes content using the same senses.
- Operable. Everyone should be able to use an interface or navigation element, whether they’re using a mouse, keyboard, or assistive device to interact with a digital system. That requires careful web design.
- Understandable. All users should be able to understand content and navigation features, in everything from language to predictable site performance.
- Robust. Websites should be technically compatible with a wide variety of assistive technologies, such as screen readers, eye-tracking devices, and voice-recognition software.
If you’re a web developer, these four principles don’t offer much technical advice. But their inclusion in the EAA provides an important clue about what to expect from European accessibility laws. The principles come from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the world’s leading standard for accessible web design.
While we don’t know for sure how national laws will codify accessible web design, complying with WCAG is likely to also comply with new legal standards.
“If your business is done solely via a website, ensure that your web content is accessible according to WCAG,” recommends Steven Walker, CEO of Spylix. “That should keep your business in compliance with laws.”
According to WCAG, digital platforms should offer alternatives to text alone, making it accessible to users with vision impairments, reading disabilities, or low literacy. Text alternatives also support second-language learners and anyone with a preference for listening over reading. Similarly, to comply with WCAG, websites should make it easy to resize text and offer clutter-free web pages that can interfere with concentration for users with attention disorders.
To bring your digital services into compliance with WCAG—and, very likely, the many new digital accessibility laws coming to Europe, thanks to the EU Accessibility Act, you can use flexible text-to-speech (TTS) solutions such as those from ReadSpeaker to support accessibility initiatives.
ReadSpeaker’s webReader and Compliance with the European Accessibility Act
Because the EAA is an EU Directive and not a national law, we can’t say for certain how TTS tools will impact compliance. But we know they remove barriers to digital services in a variety of ways, so they’re likely to help, however the new legislative environment develops.
ReadSpeaker’s webReader is a comprehensive tool for online content interaction, with a variety of features designed to simplify digital experiences for all. An industry-leading TTS engine allows users to listen to text in more than 50 languages, with a choice of over 200 high-quality voices. The overlay highlights text as you listen, so it’s easy for struggling readers and second-language learners to follow along.
Users can also enlarge text with the click of a mouse, or enter plain-text mode to limit distractions. A page mask feature highlights text as you read, helping readers focus. And a pop-up menu allows users to translate selections or get definitions without opening a new tab. The user interface is operable by keyboard alone, in compliance with WCAG 2.1 success criterion 2.1.1. By adding webReader to your website or app, you give all users the ability to personalize their experience, breaking down accessibility barriers and creating better experiences for all.
We can’t predict exactly what the European Accessibility Act will require of business owners just yet, and there will probably be subtle variations from one nation to the next. But wherever you operate, ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools can help make your content more accessible, which is rowing in the same direction as the EU Accessibility Act.