European Accessibility Act: What you need to know
The European Accessibility Act (EAA) has been on my mind for a while now.
Weirdly, not many people have heard of it, but the scope of it is huge! So lets look at it in more detail. I'll try to explain what it means, especially for private sector organisations, and I'll also share some tips to help you prepare for the deadline in 2025, so you're not left scrambling at the last minute!
What is the European Accessibility Act?
The European Accessibility Act is new legislation which was brought in by the European Union (EU) in 2019 with the aim to make sure that products and services are more accessible.
It goal is mainly to help people with disabilities, but it will make things better for everybody!
Somehow, it has flown under the radar. A lot of people are not aware of it, but, there is a deadline of 28 June 2025 in order to comply with it. So, if this is the first time you're hearing of it, please take note!
The idea is to finally create an environment where everyone finally has equal opportunities. It is supposed to bring accessibility to the likes of websites, mobile apps, ticket kiosks, ATM’s (cash machines), Smart TV's, and… Well… Pretty much anything that is a digital device, application or service.
Before the EAA, there were already some accessibility regulations in place, but they were heavily focused on public sector bodies.
If you've attended any of my talks in the past decade or so, you'll know that I've been constantly warning private sector folk that at some point they too will be on the hook for accessibility. Well, thanks to the EAA, that time is now!
How is the EAA different from other accessibility regulations?
You're probably thinking
- Isn't there already a bunch of accessibility regulations in the UK and the EU?
- What's the difference between the EAA, the EU Web Accessibility Directive, the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations, and EN 301 549?
- What impact does Brexit have on the EAA?
So, let's try and break it down!
The EU Web Accessibility Directive
The EU Web Accessibility Directive 2016 is aimed at public sector websites and mobile applications in Europe.
The intent behind the directive is mainly to improve the accessibility of websites and mobile apps. However, as a cool consolation prize, it also makes the user experience more consistent for people with disabilities.
It only applies to you if you're a public sector body in Europe, including the UK, as it was implemented in 2016 before Brexit.
It does not apply to the private sector unless they’re providing products or services directly to a public sector body.
The Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations
The Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018 are, as the name suggests, aimed at public sector bodies also. But, the important difference here is that this is UK specific law.
Like the EU Web Accessibility Directive 2016, it sets out accessibility requirements for websites and mobile apps. And, again, private sector organisations are not directly impacted unless they're supplying products or services directly to a public sector body.
The Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations are what is known as a harmonised standard. So, whilst they are UK regulations, they are aligned with the EU Web Accessibility Directive.
Harmonised standards can be more strict, have additional measures or higher standards, but they cannot fall below the standard of the regulations they are harmonised with.
Because they are harmonised, if you meet the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations, you will also meet the EU Accessibility Directive. Cool huh?
EN 301 549
EN 301 549 is named horrendously. I hate it. It's not particularly accessible having a name that makes no sense, which is perhaps why people often get confused as to what EN 301 549 actually is.
However, in short, EN 301 549 is a technical standard that lays down the accessibility requirements for ICT (information and communications technology) products and services.
It is essentially just a set of guidelines which tells organisations how to make products accessible, rather than all the legalities which explains what happens to them if they do not!
The European Accessibility Act
The European Accessibility Act, on the other hand, is focused on private sector organisations selling products or services to customers that live in EU member states.
Note here that it isn't organisations based in the EU, it's those selling to EU customers. This is very important, as the laws apply based on the location of the customer, not the location of the organisation.
It came into force in 2019, making it the newest set of regulations, and the scope is larger than anything we've seen so far.
It covers a broad range of products and services, it isn't just limited to websites and mobile apps. It's also the first time that, whether you provide public services to people in the EU, or you sell products or services to customers in the EU, you will all need to meet the same standard of accessibility.
It's probably the most ambitious attempt we've seen at accessibility legislation!
What is the impact on private sector organisations?
For private sector organisations, the European Accessibility Act is a big change. It mandates accessibility for a huge range of products and services. Like the other regulations, it also includes websites and mobile apps, but now, it also includes physical devices such as ticket machines, smart phones and TV's.
Simply put, if you're in the private sector and you operate within the EU, you'll have to make sure your products and services meet the EAA's requirements.
By getting on board with these guidelines early, and building accessibility in by design, means you're not just ticking a box. You're providing a more inclusive experience for more people, reaching new markets, enhancing your brands reputation, and driving innovation.
Broader Scope of Compliance
The EAA goes beyond just making your website and apps accessible. It includes other digital products, like physical devices and e-books.
Private sector organisations will need to make sure that all their existing digital products now meet the new accessibility requirements, which may mean going through everything from website design to app development, and ensuring that accessibility is integrated throughout the process.
Whether you build digital hardware or software, it now needs to be accessible. It might be time to do some end-to-end user research to see which parts are challenging for people with disabilities.
A More Inclusive User Experience
By complying with the EAA, your products and services will be more inclusive and user-friendly for everybody, not just those with disabilities. Because accessible design often leads to better usability for everyone, it will make it easier for customers to find information or complete transactions.
At the moment, people with disabilities are often limited in their choices of products and services because so few are accessible. With the EAA, there should be more choice for users and more competition between brands. It will shift the power back into the hands of customers, and if you don’t keep up you lose your slice of the pie, because they will just be able to choose a better experience elsewhere.
Increased Market Reach
With more than 80 million people in the EU living with disabilities, making your digital offerings accessible can significantly expand your customer base.
Accessible products and services can also cater to an ageing population, people with temporary impairments, or those using different devices to access your content. By making things more inclusive, you can reach new markets and a wider audience.
Again, I realise I’m making this about money, but we are talking about the private sector here, and unfortunately in private sector, money makes the world go round!
Improved Brand Reputation
By meeting the EAA requirements, private sector organisations can enhance their brand reputation and showcase their commitment to social responsibility.
Customers will appreciate businesses that prioritise inclusivity and value all of their users. This positive perception can boost brand loyalty and foster long-lasting relationships with your customers.
At the moment, if you’re accessible, you’re an anomaly. There is a lot of positive hype for those companies that are doing it well.
Over time, this will adjust. The positive hype will go away as it becomes normal and the amount of negativity aimed towards those organisations failing to meet their new legal obligations will increase.
There’s a whole lot of bad press on the horizons for those organisations that refuse to move with the culture shift. So ride the wave now whilst it's positive!
Legal Compliance and Risk Mitigation
If you don't make things accessible, it can result in fines, legal action, or negative publicity.
However, if you're proactive in making your digital products and services are accessible, you can mitigate these risks and stay compliant with the new regulations.
Most large organisations love a good risk management process. So, get ahead of the curve and start monitoring your progress.
Innovation and Competitive Advantage
Implementing accessibility features often leads to innovative products and services. These can set your business apart from your competition.
By prioritising accessibility, you can stay ahead, drive innovation, and create unique products that cater to a broader audience. This will give you a competitive edge and help your business stand out in the market.
There's a particular advantage to those products that cater to people who are Neurodivergent. As society catches up, it's becoming increasingly more evident that many people rely on simpler content and user interfaces.
So instead of just focusing on technical compliance, try implementing something like the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Principles (CogA).
What does it mean for UK organisations post-Brexit?
Brexit has brought a lot of changes, and many of you might be wondering what the EAA means for organisations in Britain now that it's no longer part of the EU.
As we just mentioned, the EAA affects organisations selling to customers in EU member states. So if thats your organisation, then put simply, you need to comply!
If that is not your company, you may still not be off the hook.
Whilst the UK is no longer bound by EU laws, there's still a strong push towards digital accessibility in the country. As we mentioned earlier, the UK government has already implemented its own accessibility regulations in the form of the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations, which were stricter than those in Europe at the time they were implemented.
In the UK, private sector companies are also still bound to the Equality Act 2010, which makes it illegal to discriminate against people with protected characteristics, of which one is disability. This means private sector organisations have been expected to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities for over a decade anyway.
The downside of the Equality Act is that it is somewhat subjective as to what is ‘reasonable’, whereas the EAA makes it very clear what is the expected standard, and by meeting the EAA standard you will have made a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act. Win-win!
Why should you still adopt the EAA standard, even if the UK laws do not?
It’s likely that the UK will continue aligning with EU standards, because it's good practice, it's beneficial for users, and it's essential for businesses that operate both in the UK and the EU.
This is just my opinion, and I might be wrong, but I'm going to take this moment to gloat at the fact I predicted in a talk I did in 2016 that UK organisations would be regularly getting sued for accessibility by the year 2030. And it's looking like we're on track!
However, even if you disagree, here are a few things to consider.
If you're looking to do business in the EU, complying with the EAA is a must. There is no opt out just because you are British.
Even if the UK chooses not to adopt the EAA standards, it would be wise to voluntarily adopt it anyway, because:
- it future-proofs you against any iterations to regulations in the UK
- it will open the European market to your product or services should you choose to expand later
- you will automatically meet the required standard for reasonable adjustments under UK law
It's a no-brainer really. I mean, who does not think it's a smart move to align your accessibility standards with those of one of your biggest potential markets?
Even if you only ever plan on selling to people in the UK, your product is going to appear far inferior to your EU competitors if you don’t adopt the same standards. Trust me, there is no competitive advantage in having an ableist product or service in 2023!
Accessibility is not just about ticking boxes; it's about inclusivity. Implementing these standards shows that your business values all customers and respect their needs.
In an increasingly digital world, having an accessible online presence is becoming the norm rather than the exception. It sends a strong message about your company's responsibility and it's commitment to society.
So, while the EAA might not be a legal requirement for UK businesses, the principles it embodies are still highly relevant. By embracing these standards, British organisations can gain access to new markets, and also contribute to a more inclusive digital world.
5 tips to prepare for the regulations
So, how can you prepare for the EAA?
Get familiar with the EAA requirements
Start by reading through the EAA and understanding what it requires. It's important to understand them at least at a high level.
It may sound scary, but if you drill down far enough through any of the legislation, standards or harmonised standards, you will eventually get to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. So, if you're ever unsure as to which regulations you need to be meeting, you can take some reassurance in the fact they all use the same way to measure accessibility of digital products.
Review your existing products and services
Take a look at what products or services you're currently offering, and identify where you need to make changes.
Think about everything from your website to your apps, but also consider other parts of the journey such as emails, marketing materials, SMS messages etc.
Basically if a user interacts with it, study it for what adjustments you might need to make!
Educate your team
Make sure everyone in your organisation knows about the EAA and what it means for your teams. This includes senior stakeholders who likely hold the learning and development budgets, which you'll need to convince them to spend on some EAA preparation training.
Consider getting help from an accessibility expert or external training organisation. They can provide guidance and help you avoid common mistakes.
If you can, up-skill yourself so you can support your team. There are lots of courses on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines which will go a long way towards meeting the EAA.
Don’t leave it until the last minute
The deadline for meeting the EAA is 28 June 2025, so make sure you finish the work ahead of time.
When the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations came in, everybody left it til the last minute and missed the deadlines. This left those organisations wide open to legal challenges and fines.
The worst thing you can do is nothing, which is what most private sector organisations have done to date.
You still have 2 years, so start now! If you wait until 2025, the demand for accessibility experts will increase exponentially, as will the cost to your organisation!
Watch for updates to the EAA and related regulations, and stay up-to-date with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Most iterations to the regulations are small updates, but they almost always include tweaks to the referenced WCAG standard once new versions are released.
So, work to WCAG 2.2 when it’s released, and this will help you avoid any surprises changes to standards down the line.
There is a transitional period, which may mean extended deadlines in certain cases.
You can read my blog post called Article 32, and why it sucks for more information.
The European Accessibility Act is a big step, and it's important for private sector organisations to be prepared. With the right approach, you can this can be an opportunity to make things better for everybody!
Organisations that bury their head and hope it goes away will be left behind. The EAA deadline is coming, whether you like it or not, so grab hold of the challenge, get ahead, and get the accolade for being one of those leading the way.
I hope this was helpful!