Illustration of a delivery person from Europe delivering boxes to the US, labelled EN 301 549

What does European accessibility standard EN 301 549 mean for US organizations?

I had the opportunity to chat with Shadi Abou-Zahra, the Accessibility Strategy and Technology Specialist at W3C, to discuss EN 301 549. If you’re unfamiliar, the W3C or World Wide Web Consortium, is the international standards body that develops web standards. Shadi works in a part of the W3C that that focuses on making the web accessible to people with different kinds of disabilities, the WAI or Web Accessibility Initiative. He’s one of the top accessibility minds in the world and has spent considerable time contributing to the European accessibility standard EN 301 549. In the video below I asked him a series of high-level questions to help those of us who work for US organizations. If video ain’t your thing, continue reading to follow our conversation.

What is Digital Accessibility?

Digital accessibility is basically making all the electronic products accessible. I often compare it to physical accessibility, it’s the electronic version of a curb cut or a ramp. It’s the practice of making software, web content, documents and hardware in a way that people with different kinds of disabilities can use them. One example may be providing text alternatives for images so that these can be read out loud by people using screen readers who cannot see the screen. Another is including captions to provide an audio alternative for people who cannot hear the content. As we continue having more digital content and digital products, digital accessibility is becoming immensely important to include people disabilities in addition to providing benefits for everyone else.

What is EN 301 549?

Let’s get this out of the way first. There is no nickname or shorthand for saying EN 301 549, the actual title of the document is even longer! Ok, let’s talk about what it means. In a nutshell, EN 301 549 is an accessibility standard that covers all ICT (Information and Communication Technology). This includes pretty much every digital product you can think of, cell phones, printers, ATMs, electronic documents, software, web content and more.

Our interest at W3C is to make sure that there are “harmonized standards for digital accessibility.” It really doesn’t make sense to have a set of standards in Europe and a set of standards in the US and the set of standards in other individual countries. By nature, we all know the Internet is global and knows now boundaries, we need a common set of accessibility requirements to make it easier to practice. And this is where W3C comes in.

The W3C’s web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) has really become the international standard, which is why it became part of EN 301 549. EN 301 549 are technical requirements for digital accessibility. The part of EN 301 549 that covers web is actually WCAG version 2.1. One key difference is additive sections in the European standard for electronic documents. A document that is not available on the web, maybe on a USB Drive or stored locally on your computer, also follow WCAG using a W3C working group note called “WCAG2ICT.” It’s basically an interpretation of WCAG for this context. For example, if you have a requirement for color contrast, you need to make sure that there is sufficient contrast between the foreground and background between of text and the background it rests upon. It really makes sense to apply that requirement to websites but it’s also required for software and documents you use locally, on your personal devices. It doesn’t make sense to suddenly have a set of requirements to publish your document online but if you have it on your hard disk or if you share it you know with your colleagues via the intranet, that you then have a separate set of accessibility requirements. The boundaries between the areas of software, web and content is diminishing, we now have more Universal requirements that apply to all these different types of content.

What does EN 301 549 mean from a legal compliance standpoint?

Let’s compare this European standard to some you may be familiar with in the US.

The technical requirements of the Section 508 procurement law in the US refer to WCAG for web content, documents, and software. There are various policies across the European member states that rely on EN 301 549 in this same capacity. EN 301 549 is the technical standard that allows the European Commission to enforce certain policies in various contexts across Europe.

What next steps I think would you recommend that US businesses take?

There is a lot of policy progress and development happening in Europe right now. For example, EN 301 549 is being used right now by the so-called Web Accessibility Directive. This is a European legislation, so it applies across all European Member states. They are required to adopt that European policy into their national legislative framework, so that public bodies adhere to that technical standard. This is a pretty major change right now, having a common set of requirements to fuel different kinds of accessibility laws across Europe. At the same time right now in the European Parliament, there’s progress on the so-called European Accessibility Act, or the EAA, which could be compared to the ADA in the United States. The EAA is an anti-discrimination law that would apply to public services and products from private businesses. Banks, Airlines and retail shops would be good examples of this. So, as you can tell from all the activity in the policy space, accessibility is becoming more-so important in Europe just like it is in the US.

I have to say though, it’s really important to remember that we all move away from legal motivations for accessibility. We can’t forget to recognize that access for people with disabilities is a right under the UN Convention on the Rights of persons with disabilities.

At the same time, we also need to recognize the business benefits of accessibility. If I make my curb cut analogy again, many of us know that the more often you implement a curb cut, the cost of implementation becomes much less. In addition to the cost savings over time, you’re creating additional benefits for the rest of the population, like people using a bicycle, people pushing trollies and so on. It’s the same with digital accessibility. When I’m able to use something using only my voice because I have a physical disability, it prompts creators of digital products to consider additional use cases. The resulting action for the market are hands-free devices, home automation products and more, that benefit us all. Things like this they’re becoming part of everyday and very often start off as assistive technologies. Accessibility is innovation. It provides universal benefits while improving usability and appeal to much broader audiences. These benefits are critical to keep in mind, beyond any legal requirements you may encounter around the world.

Special thanks to Shadi for taking the time to help explain all this for us!

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