Can the European Accessibility Act level up access to digital services?

In 2021 it seems perverse to be discussing whether digital products are universally accessible. Yet, a survey of the home pages for the top one million websites paints “a rather dismal picture of the current state of web accessibility for individuals with disabilities,” says WebAIM. Similarly, many digital products remain inaccessible to disabled people. 

The good news is that in Europe there is hope for a levelling up thanks to the European Accessibility Act (EAA). The EAA promises to transform everything from cash machines to computers, e-books to e-commerce apps by making digital accessibility a legal requirement for any company selling products and services across Europe. 

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What is the European Accessibility Act?

AbilityNet's head of digital inclusion Robin ChristophersonWhile Covid-19 has brought the need for tech accessibility into sharp focus, the EAA predates it; the European Union published the directive in 2019.

The aim is to create a harmonised set of rules for accessibility products and services, said Robin Christopherson, MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet.

“The European Accessibility Act will harmonise and modernise the legal requirement for websites, apps and other technology to be inclusive and easy to use by all. Implemented across all member states, it should see a significant shift in what is, at present, a challenging online world for those with a disability or impairment.”

Casper Klynge, vice president of European government affairs at Microsoft agreed: "It creates clarity and transparency. It raises the standards and holds everybody to account. Harmonised standards help us to comply in a consistent way,” he said. 

“It [the EAA] is a big step that will affect many, many users with disabilities and also elderly people,” said Susanna Laurin, chief research and innovation officer with Funka, the Swedish accessibility organisation. 

"I don't think this will be smooth and easy, but in the long run, I'm quite sure that this will be successful and, when it is, I think it will make a difference."

The directive is primarily concerned with digital technology. Among the list of products and services that fall within its scope are computers and their operating systems, smartphones and television services. The Act also encompasses technology generally used in public spaces, such as ATM cash machines and transport ticketing machines. "The products and services selected in the EAA are key for the socioeconomic inclusion of persons with disabilities in economy and society," said Inmaculada Placencia Porrero,  Deputy Head of Unit for Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the EU.

Companies must comply with the European Accessibility Act

While new, the EAA builds on and complements previous legislation, such as the EU’s Web Accessibility Directive. Crucially, the EAA, unlike the Web Accessibility Directive, applies to private companies and organisations, not just the public sector

That means any private company selling products and services needs to comply. So, if you’re selling into an EU member state, your website, product service or app must comply. For larger companies, compliance should be relatively straightforward.

“Apple, Microsoft, Google; they have all invested for many years in accessibility; they have clear leadership in the company when it comes to accessibility. So those, I don't think we'll see suffering,” said Alejandro Moledo, policy coordinator for the European Disability Forum.

However, medium-sized online retailers may feel a pinch.

“Look at, for example, e-commerce; e-commerce can be absolutely any website or mobile application that sells you stuff online. Maybe for those more, let's say, medium enterprises, it will be a little bit more difficult to catch up,” said Moledo.

“Or maybe they don't even realise that there is legislation that affects them in this regard.”

There are exemptions. So-called microenterprises will be exempt, and non-member states don't have to bring the EAA into law. Post-Brexit, a freeze on the automatic adoption of any new EU directives means the EAA may not become UK law. 

European Accessibility Act: raising the bar worldwide

Despite this, the EAA will raise the bar for accessibility standards. 

Once companies have done the necessary work to comply with the directive in the EU, it's doubtful that they will undo all of that hard work and expense when selling their products or services outside of the region. 

Klynge likens the EAA to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), EU legislation that had implications far beyond European shores.

"I think what it [the GDPR] has done is to create minimum standards that everybody will have to comply to," he said.

“What we did at Microsoft was to say what works for Europe will probably work everywhere, so we took a global approach and implemented that in all our products and all our technologies around the world.”

Headshot of Microsoft's Caspar Klynge

“What we did at Microsoft was to say what works for Europe will probably work everywhere, so we took a global approach and implemented that in all our products and all our technologies around the world.”
Caspar Klynge, vice president of European government affairs at Microsoft.

Laurin agrees that the EAA is a rising tide that lifts all boats. 

She points out that companies selling products to the UK are unlikely to sell less accessible products into that market just because the same laws do not govern it.

"If they already have a system or a product or service that is accessible, why would they have an inaccessible one to sell to you [in the UK]?" she asks.

And anyone in the UK selling products to a member state will also have to comply. “Anything that touches Europe or that comes from Europe is going to be improved by it [the EAA] because it'll need to be compliant,” said Christopherson.

He adds that: "unless you're creating a digital product that you've got no intention of diversifying into Europe or elsewhere, why wouldn't you follow the guidelines?” 

Laurin argues that the EAA will help bring the EU more in line with international markets, such as North America. She said it would “both mean harmonisation within the European inner market and also across the pond to North America, where accessibility requirements cover more sectors than we currently do in Europe.” 

European Accessibility Act: A turning point for accessibility?

Is the EAA a pivotal moment for digital accessibility? Certainly, it’s a step in the right direction. “We believe that the European Accessibility Act is going to be a turning point for accessibility in the European Union and Europe,” said Moledo.

"For the first time, we have a horizontal legislation on accessibility that sets out the functional accessibility requirements that a set of products and services will need to comply with," he added.

And even though the legislation only covers EU member states, all of our experts agreed that the EAA's impact will stretch beyond EU borders.

Klynge says legislation such as the EAA focuses minds. “We want to make sure that we include accessibility in every single product that we develop,” he said.

He added, "I still think we're just at the beginning of this, and we'll see a massive amount of innovation and further developments that will ultimately benefit everybody, help people with disabilities – and make sure that we have a more inclusive workforce.” 

Change won't happen immediately. EU member states have until mid-2022 to enact the EAA into their local law, and enforcement won’t begin in earnest until 2025. 

The lead time is necessary, given that ensuring inclusive products can be complex. “There's a challenge with regards getting to grips with the technicalities of compliance,” said Christopherson.

He added: "It's not a simple box-ticking exercise or deciding one day to get to grips with accessibility. “There's a learning curve that needs to be resourced, that needs to be prioritised… You need to give people a little bit of extra time to build it into their day job."

Placencia Porrero agrees companies should start planning, now. "Companies should really be getting acquainted with those requirements, training their staff and setting the procedures for implementation," she said. 

The Act may also, in turn, lead to more companies realising the benefit "of employing more and more persons with disabilities who can also contribute to the development of products and services," said the EDF’s Moledo. He added that their insight and experiences would be invaluable to the companies. 

“Not all companies have been thinking of accessibility before,” said Moledo. “We see that there will be a huge demand for accessibility professionals from the industry side.”

Beyond legislation: Business benefits of the EAA

No piece of legislation is ever perfect, and the experts we spoke to raise some concerns over elements that are out of scope or will be difficult to implement. 

Health care products were omitted from the legislation, for example, as was anything to do with the built environment. 

There are also many exemptions, most notably for 'microenterprises’ – companies with fewer than ten staff or below certain financial thresholds.

Laurin also has fears over the enforcement process and whether there will be sufficient mechanisms to monitor companies for non-compliance and support them in meeting the requirements. 

A picture of AbilityNet's head of digital inclusion Robin Christopherson leaning over a balcony
“There’s a very significant business case for accessibility. Websites and other products or services that are inclusive are going to reach a wider audience – not just the 15% that have a disability in your customer base."
Robin Christopherson, MBE. Head of Digital Inclusion for AbilityNet

However, Laurin says that raising awareness of the EAA can mediate a lack of fines. "If everyone helps out by making sure the users know about this legislation so that they do complain or provide feedback, that I think would be the strongest enforcement because nobody wants a war with a disability organisation or 20 people in wheelchairs demonstrating outside of their headquarters,” she said. 

Besides, it's not just about compliance; accessibility is good business sense.

“There’s a very significant business case for accessibility,” said Christopherson. “Websites and other products or services that are inclusive are going to reach a wider audience – not just the 15% that have a disability in your customer base. They make for products that are easier to use for all and, as such, accessible products will help those millions of potentially excluded customers who would otherwise struggle with digital.”

The so-called Purple pound represents a potential £247bn in revenue. By 2040 it's estimated that older people, who are more likely to be disabled, will account for 63p in every pound or £550bn, according to the International Longevity Centre (ILC).

It's a compelling argument. 

Combining the legislative force of the EAA with business and moral imperatives, the hope is that European consumers may soon be able to have confidence that the technology they communicate with or through will be accessible to all.

The article was commissioned by AbilityNet and written by Barry Collins of Media BC

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