Bigger, better, and brilliant: EU approves a new #a11y directive

At last, some good accessibility law news. Really.

In a late night marathon session the EU approved a refreshed version of its previously controversial accessibility directive.  This plan, now four years in the making, sets forth guidelines and standards to mandate the accessibility of public sector web sites across EU member states. While some countries have excellent web accessibility laws and policies in place – the gov.uk accessibility standards being an outstanding example – other member states have piecemeal legislation barely worth mentioning. As public services move online and the population ages, inadequate accessibility is no longer an option.

You can read my longread briefing on the original draft directive here. For the TL;dr crowd, the problems with the draft directive were as follows:

  • Mobile apps, incredibly, were not included under the scope of the legislation;
  • Nor were the intranets and extranets used by government employees with disabilities, but worst of all,
  • Office file formats, such as pdfs and .docs, were exempted entirely!
  • The definition of what qualified as a “public sector web site” allowed more exemptions than inclusions;
  • Odd timing standards meant that the legislation would essentially only apply to sites created after it became law; and finally,
  • The draft directive’s monitoring and enforcement scope was in the style of the US’s Section 508 law, which is to say, tokenistic and toothless.

In sum, it was clear that this flawed draft directive would have been worse than no legislation altogether.

Fortunately, the accessibility community had the support of a Czech MEP called Dita Charanzová who, as the directives’s rapporteur, pulled off a miracle of negotiation:

  • Mobile apps are now included in the legislation;
  • So are intranets and extranets (including university systems);
  • And office file format such as pdfs and .docs! Additionally,
  • The directive will apply to all public sector web sites without exception;
  • Older content must be converted into an accessible file format on demand; and finally;
  • The monitoring and enforcement regime will have teeth and will also involve a public reporting mechanism.

But wait, there’s more! The new directive has gone beyond patching the holes in the draft, and includes several enhancements:

  • Videos will need to have captions or an accessible alternative;
  • Live-streamed videos will need captions or an accessible alternative within 14 days of the first broadcast;
  • Online payment services, such as council taxes and parking fees, will have to be accessible;
  • If a web site, or part of a web site, is not accessible, there will have to be a clear statement explaining why.

Finally, member states will be allowed to put in even stronger national accessibility requirements for public sector web sites if they so wish.

When will the new rules take effect? In EU-government-speak, “Once the agreed text has undergone legal-linguistic finalisation, it needs to be formally approved first by the Council and then by the Parliament. The procedure is expected to be completed in the autumn (of 2016).”

The full text of the draft EU public sector web accessibility directive is now available to view in 23 languages.

After the text is approved, we will have the usual process of several years where the directive is transposed into each member state’s national legislation. It will then be rolled out in phases:

  • New web sites must be compliant within 12 months of the directive taking effect;
  • Older public sector web sites must be compliant within 24 months of the directive taking effect;
  • Mobile apps must be compliant within 33 months of the directive taking effect.

In other words, while it is at least two years before the directive becomes “the law”, that gives public sector authorities across Europe two years to either retrofit accessibility compliance onto existing web sites or rip it up and build something better. It also gives developers the incredible opportunity to spend two years educating the public sector on how to build in good accessibility compliance from day one.

While there is considerable work ahead, it’s time to pop out the prosecco. For once, they got it right.

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.

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