Web accessibility requirements to increase in Europe

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 3 Mar 2014

Web developers and content producers working for European government agencies and businesses providing public services will have increased web accessibility requirements thanks to the wide-spread endorsement of a new draft law by members of the European Parliament.

The draft law — which was approved by 593 votes to 40, with 13 abstentions — requires all European Union (EU) member countries to ensure that all websites managed by public sector bodies are fully accessible to elderly people and those with a disability.

According to a statement by the European Parliament, the draft law may also be applied to private businesses which provide public services such as utilities, transport, childcare and health.

If the law is adopted by EU member countries it is expected that new website content will become accessible within one year. Countries will be given three years to make all existing website content accessible, and five years in total for “live audio content” to be accessible.

According to the Parliament’s record of adopted texts (Word document download), website accessibility would be defined as meeting level AA conformance of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Websites covered by the new law would also need to include a clear and concise statement on their level of accessibility.

According to the EU’s Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies' websites, many political initiatives at European level relate to web-accessibility, including: the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 (ICT accessibility); the eGovernment Action Plan 2011-2015 (inclusive and accessible eGovernment services); the ‘Digital Agenda for Europe’ (Commission proposes to ensure fully-accessible public sector websites by 2015). The guiding principles for greater web accessibility are considered to be contained the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

According to the EU Parliament, only one third of the 761,000 EU public sector websites meet basic web accessibility standards. In its estimation, more than 167 million EU citizens have difficulty in accessing public websites to use online public services.

EU countries have been working toward greater web accessibility for the last 10 years, but according to the latest report on web accessibility in the EU, the Monitoring eAccessibility in Europe 2011 Annual Report (Word document download), the overall level of eAccessibility remains low.

“According to data collected in 2010 and 2011, people with disabilities in Europe still face many barriers in their everyday usage of ICT products and services,” the report reads. “The evolution in the EU countries between 2010 and 2011 was positive, but slow, in eAccessibility achievements.

“While many EU Member States have adopted measures to ensure provision of Assistive Technologies, data reveal how the lack of eAccessibility in technology domains such as public websites, digital television, public terminals and telephone access to emergency services and telecare [remote care of elderly and physically less able people] systems persists in many European countries.”

The Government of Australia has also been working to advance web accessibility. In 2010 it released its National Transition Strategy (NTS) which stated that all government websites must comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 level A by the end of 2012 and level AA by the end of 2014.

Those goals have since slipped, with the agency responsible for the NTS — the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) — stating that this timeframe was unrealistic.

Its latest progress report found that:

  • Only 26 percent of government websites currently meet any level of WCAG 2.0
  • Accessibility conformance of more than 40 percent of government websites is unknown
  • Only 16 percent of government web applications currently meet any level of WCAG 2.0
  • Accessibility improvements are expected to be rolled out for more than 800 additional government websites and applications by the end of 2014