Web accessibility to become mandatory in Europe

A long-running discussion related to web accessibility is whether it should be required by law or not. Some believe it is the only way of making organisations ensure that their websites can be used by everybody, while others argue that it should be up to each organisation to decide.

My opinion is that for the private sector the “let everybody decide for themselves” argument may have some validity, but only some. Public sector websites, however, must be accessible to all, regardless of which browsing device they use or if they have a disability.

That’s why I find it very interesting that on 12 June 2006, ministers of 34 European countries endorsed A pan-European drive to use information and communication technologies to help people to overcome economic, social, educational, territorial or disability-related disadvantages.

Two of the targets of this Riga Ministerial Declaration are to ensure that all public websites are accessible by 2010 and by 2007, make recommendations on accessibility standards and common approaches, which could become mandatory in public procurement by 2010.

Very interesting, and about time. There is a related memo (Information and communication technology for an inclusive society – Frequently asked questions) that mentions WAI, so WCAG will probably be used or referenced in some way.

The full press release is available online: Internet for all: EU ministers commit to an inclusive and barrier-free information society.

Posted on June 21, 2006 in Accessibility, Quicklinks


  1. It will be interesting to see how effective this is on a european scale. The UK has effectively required all government websites to conform to WCAG level AA since April this year, but still very few do. It’s not enshrined in law, but I honestly doubt that would have made much difference.

    What’s needed from government is the willingness to back these mandates up with real, substantial sanctions in cases of failure - withdraw the domain (which is controlled by the government of course), fine the department responsible or appoint an independent regulator with the power to fine them. Only then will those responsible put processes in place to ensure that accessibility is built in during new site developments or redevelopments. Otherwise what’s the motivation? The moral imperative has failed until now, I’m not optimistic another toothless directive will affect any change.

  2. It may just be weak language but what is meant by public in “ensure that all public websites are accessible by 2010”? Are they refering to gov’t web sites or any web site that a general member of the public has unrestricted access?

  3. @Dan Champion:

    “The UK has effectively required all government websites to conform to WCAG level AA since April this year, but still very few do. It’s not enshrined in law”

    No offence, but you’re talking cobblers. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 makes it illegal for all companies to discriminate against the disabled when offering services. This applies to web sites just like anything else. Good laws don’t need to be re-written for new technology.

    You’re entirely right about sanctions, though. No-one has been sued for their web site under the Act yet. If someone was, the market value of WCAG-savvy web developers would suddenly go up :)

    @Jules: I can’t remember wher I read this, but I think this is just a statement of intent from the EU: there’s no “mandatory” about it.

    On a separate note: I think regulation will only work if there are a measurable set of guidelines to work from. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 certainly aren’t that, and Joe Clark sure doesn’t think 2.0 improve matters. So I think we’re at bit of a plateau. I think the best thing any web site can do is make it as easy as possible to complain, and then respond to complaints.

  4. Interesting read Roger. I think the big thing will be defining what is personal and what is a public sector. My personal website is mine. I paid for it, I paid for the name, I paid for the hosting, I should be able to make it as bad as I want to (this is the mindset of many). However, I work for a Christian Book Distributor (www.barbourbooks.com) and there is NO reason that this site should not be accessible to ALL who would visit it. BUT - who draws the line, and HOW does the line get drawn? How will penalties be issued and addressed? Who will govern and oversee the whole process?

    There are some websites that have been around for YEARS (maybe even untouched by the developer) - are they still held accountable if a new law comes into play?

    There are alot of questions to be answered when considering this - I guess thats why they are looking at 2010. Personally, I would LOVE to see this happen here - but it will definitely take some time and intense thought.

  5. @Small Paul: Sorry, I obviously didn’t make myself clear. I’m well aware of the DDA, the point I was trying to make is that there is no defined level of accessibility enshrined in UK law. Until there is case law under the DDA specifically relating to websites which specifies a level of accessibility that is deemed not to discriminate, the best we have for public sector websites are the guidelines issued by government.

  6. Woah, thanks for pointing this out Roger. I’d totally have missed it otherwise. This is really good news.

    I’m a little worried that WCAG 2.0 (as it stands, with some issues - of course, draft deadline is today, so hopefully it will be ironed out by release) will conincide with the 2007 step, which will mean we’ll have a ridiculously difficult task ahead of us.

  7. June 22, 2006 by Luca

    In Italy we have a specific law regarding accessibility and a dedicated department inside the Ministry of Internal Affairs responsible for its implementation. A score (1 to 4 stars) is given with a procedure that combines a technical evaluation and a user-centered, scenarios-based ‘expert evaluation’.

    The technical evaluation is, in practice, conformance to WCAG 1.0 guidelines; while the ‘expert evaluation’ must be carried out by ministry-certified teams composed of a technical expert (programmer), a human-machine interaction expert, and a disability expert.

    Private companies can decide if they want their website analyzed and are then authorized to use the certification logos as an added value; public sector entities are required to conform with the accessibility law with any new site or any update of their current site. (i.e. no real deadline is given to conform !).

    Final weirdness: public sector sites evaluations must be carried out internally, not by the Ministerial procedure described above. The site must have an accessibility statement; if any user finds unaccessible content he can file a claim to the authorities, that will evaluate the case and eventually apply sanctions.

    To summarize.. the law as it stands (who knows what will be of it with the new government); tries to bring the accessibility issues to the center stage, without being to sanctionary and thus cause panic in the development community. Its most important aspect is the very clear distinction between a final one-step validation by automated procedures and a real accessibility-oriented web development approach that involves programmers, designers, editors in an iterative process.

    Here’s the best official document in english I have found.

  8. June 22, 2006 by Spike

    Define a public website - is that a PLC or any website that is viewable in public?!

  9. He probably meant public government-owned I also assume the list has to include one or more persons with disability on the testing panel as a requirement.

  10. June 22, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    I assume that by “public websites” they mean “websites run by public sector organisations”. Governments, national agencies, counties, municipalities, etc.

  11. @Small Paul

    No-one has been sued for their web site under the Act yet.

    That’s because a company wouldn’t really be sued for having an inaccessible website, more for refusing to fix the web site so it doesn’t discriminate against people with disabilities (actually a person with a disability).

    @ Dan Champion

    there is no defined level of accessibility enshrined in UK law

    And I hope there never will be. A ‘level of accessibility’ implies adherence to technical specification. Web technology moves on far faster than laws and associated amendments can possibly do. For example, many people know that WCAG 1 is now irrelevent in many places, and certainly only applies to HTML-based sites, so a law saying websites must adhere to WCAG 1 would be bad and severely limiting to progress. In fact it’s likely a law written like that would actually inhibit future development of accessibility techniques.

    This is where WCAG 2 comes in, in theory, as it is trying to be technology agnostic and would make a better yardstick (if it was understandable). But I still maintain the DDA as it stands has got it right. Effectively it asks the question - can a disabled person use this website, if not are there reasonable means that can be employed to make it accessible, and if so is the website owner do something about it? This way reality - rather than theory - is brought into play.

    The downside is that the onus is moved towards complaining about the site rather than getting it right in the first place. But if more and more people do complain, then companies and organisations should begin to see that they need to get it right first time (especially as retrofitting accessibilty can be expensive).

  12. June 22, 2006 by Spike

    Thanks, Roger.

  13. June 23, 2006 by Alexander

    I see advantages with EU, no trade barriers, co-operation on environmental issues, working together against trafficing and crime, but this is a perfect example of what the EU should not, under any circumstances, do. I see no reason why this couldn’t be solved on a state-government level. EU should be for those things that cannot be handled by a single government alone, but nothing else (I could go one here, about dozens of otherthings that the EU is - and shouldn’t be - doing, but I won’t).

    Accessability is very important, and I think that it should be mandatory for swedish public/government sites, but I dont want to force this upon other countries.

  14. June 23, 2006 by Alexander

    I also think laws is the wrong way to go here, because this is generally not about discrimination.

    I cannot see how an inaccessible website could be discrimination, to me that is equivalent of suing someone offering climbing-adventures just because a man in a wheelchair cannot participate.

    This is discrimination; “if User-agent == Screenreader return false”, but a website not usable by screenreaders is not.

  15. June 23, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Alexander: How is neglecting (or refusing) to make a public sector website accessible not discrimination? Do you also think that refusing to fit official buildings with wheelchair ramps, elevators and disabled toilets is not discrimination?

    Your comparison does not work. Making a website reasonably accessible is easy and almost free, while bringing a person in a wheelchair to the top of Mount Everest would be immensely difficult and costly (if it is possible at all).

    I do agree that ideally no laws would be required. Unfortunately most web developers seem hell-bent on avoiding to learn how to do things right unless they absolutely have to.

  16. If you take this argument too far you might as well suggest sueing book publishers for offering books that are not being readable by blind people, or complain about how music CDs discriminate against deaf people.

    Some sites are just not relevant in an “accessable” version.

  17. Before the Peanut Gallery takes over with their illogical comparisons and overall lack of understanding of the matter, I just want to say that maybe it’s time to move to Europe and be a standards developer/accessibility consultant :)

  18. June 26, 2006 by Tony

    Does anyone know anything about accessibility checkers. I found one, http://www.hermish.com

    Are these adequate for evaluation?

    Tony :-)

  19. Tony, regarding http://www.hermish.com/…

    I received “congratulations” for A,AA,AAA & 508 for a randomly selected page on my site, so now I just have to carry out the manual checks before adding those buttons…

    Whether or not that tool is /adequate/ is difficult to say. I have no idea how good those automatic checks are, but I do know that the manual checks are just as important. Even more important than any of those checks are some real-world testing (with some real-world Users).

    I have already done some real-world testing for the basics behind that page/site-section I tested, so I know it is reasonable accessible. At least the http://www.hermish.com/ confirmed that.

  20. June 28, 2006 by Alexander

    Roger: I was to vague in my post, I do think that the swedish government should force all government bodies to provide accessible websites (the public sector this is).

    I also think that the companies in the private sector would gain much in making their websites accessible, however I think laws is wrong, for the reasons I have mentioned previously.

    I also think its insane to make these decisions on a european level, the EU is great when used for the right things (environment, trafficking, crime, open-markes, free movement etc.), but this is not one of them (1. because this shouldn’t be enforced by laws, and 2. if so, they should be enforced on a national level).

  21. I actually think this memo is just a formal representation of something that’s already happening - I really believe that most of the EU has some kind of governmental web site accessbility policy (already, or in works). Be it outlawing the discrimination on this level or providing an universal remote access to data etc.

    Our accessibility guidelines are pretty easy to read and understand and the law (Act No. 365/2000 Coll.) introduced the particular dates to bring the effect of the guidelines to life.

  22. @ small paul

    You’re entirely right about sanctions, though. No-one has been sued for their web site under the Act yet.

    Except in Australia (which has similar laws to the UK), when SOCOG and it’s contractor IBM refused to fix the Sydney Olympics site in 2000. Maguire vs SOCOG A great example of how not to deal with a complaint about accessibility.

    Are Australian public websites any more accessible than European public websites? A few like the Commonwealth Game make the effort, but the great majority no, it is the same downunder as old blightly, most don’t understand or care.

  23. I hope this wave of acessibility requirements affect my country too (TR). Here’s an example for a government site (our national lottery home page). The results can only be seen using a flash plugin (no alternatives). Please also notice the flash navigation on top, oh my, it looks so cool! ;)

    Don’t be surprised to hear that there are even worse government sites. I wish I had the opportunity to change this. I don’t know how they are choosing their webmasters, tho!

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