[Note: This blog summarizes the key points of our recent webinar, The Clock Is Ticking: How To Get Ready for the European Accessibility Act. For a full accounting of the topic, please access the webinar.]
The European Accessibility Act (EAA) impacts private-sector companies doing business in EU member states, regardless of where they are headquartered. These organizations will face legally-binding accessibility legislation. Like GDPR, it applies to any company creating software, digital services and hardware that are sold or used in the EU, which means its impact will be global.
The deadline to comply with the EAA is June 28, 2025. While this may sound like a long time, companies need to start preparing now. This timeframe was not chosen arbitrarily and reflects the complexity involved in implementing the new requirements. By comparison, companies were only given two years to prepare for GDPR.
Applause recently ran a webinar with two experts on digital accessibility, Antonio Ferreira, Founder of DEO Software and Accessibility Consulting and Julia Zacharias, SVP Strategic Accounts & Digital Accessibility, Europe at Applause. They covered what digital product teams and decision makers must know about the EAA to move from risk to readiness. They detailed how companies can move beyond mere conformance to design truly accessible digital products.
How accessibility helps everyone
Pveople in many places around the world are living longer, and that means there is more time for individuals to develop disabilities of all sorts. For example, cataracts, which often arise with aging, can impact a person’s ability to see their screen. There are also temporary and situational disabilities. If you have a severe cold that impacts your hearing, you may want to turn on subtitles while watching your favorite streaming show. It’s clear that accessibility doesn’t just benefit people with permanent disabilities, it impacts people with temporary disabilities or situational disabilities, and can also improve technology for people with no disabilities.
There are currently around 466 million people — around 6% of the world’s population — that have some sort of deafness or hearing loss. There are approximately 200 million people with some sort of cognitive impairment, which represents about 2.6% of the world’s population. It’s clear there is a substantial global population of people with disabilities for whom organizations can innovate to create the best digital experiences for everyone.
Digital accessibility vs. inclusive design
Specific disabilities, blindness or deafness, for example, are more focused in digital accessibility standards, but inclusive design covers those and other disabilities in a much broader scope. It attempts to design for as many people as possible. For example, inclusive design will take into account a person that goes outside on a very sunny day and looks at their mobile phone in the glare of the sun. In this scenario, certain backgrounds within your application may not be readable with a certain background or text color. Considering this and other limiting situations for the user is what inclusive design is all about. It goes beyond defined accessibility standards.
The previously mentioned example of having a cold demonstrates necessity driven by a specific condition. In another example, subtitles within an app can be used as a learning aid, such as when a TV viewer is trying to learn a new language like Portuguese. The user can select the subtitles in Portuguese and listen to the show in their native language, or listen in Portuguese and set the subtitles to their native language. The same can be said of speech recognition technology that may be used for persons with upper body mobility issues, for example. If someone without this disability is driving a car, they can use the assistive voice technologies to avoid having to use their hands to push buttons, making the driving experience safer.
Inclusive design considers anything that could affect a person’s ability to use a product or service. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), as the name indicates, addresses accessibility defined standards. Inclusive design as outlined above goes beyond that and includes UX research and principles that lead to optimal customer experiences. WCAG is based on four principles and it has three levels of conformance. Level A and AA are considered conformance and what you must have for your application/website to be considered accessible, i.e., compliant to the laws. These two levels are what organizations target for most cases, but there is also Level AAA, a higher standard, generally considered best practices. WCAG is built upon four main guiding principles, often referred to by their acronym, POUR.
Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presented to the user in a perceivable way.
Operable – The interface must be something all users can operate, navigate and cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform.
Understandable – The content and interface must be comprehensible and the user must be able to understand it.
Robust – Users must be able to access the content using a variety of user agents and assistive technologies.
The case for change
So, why invest in digital accessibility and why now? The obvious question of investing in accessibility can be answered by the numbers mentioned earlier in this blog. There are many people around the world who gain directly from addressing accessibility issues, and of course, everyone else who benefits from inclusive design that stems from basic accessibility efforts. But now, looming in the near future, is the EAA. We’re talking about it now because, beyond accessibility being the right thing to do, it will become a legally required thing to do. But the risk of legal issues shouldn’t be the motivating factor for investing in accessibility and inclusive design.
The curb cut effect has been around for many years. It essentially describes the phenomenon that accessibility improvements benefit everyone. This effect arose after protests in the United States in the 1970s to lower the curb to make it accessible for wheelchair users. After curb cuts were implemented, people realized that they helped many people. For example, a person pushing a baby stroller, a child on a skateboard, any person pulling a grocery cart, or someone who benefits from a more gradual transition down to the street than just stepping off the standard curb height. Life got better, just because of this simple improvement.
A recent statistic indicates that 70% of Gen Z turn on captions to watch any media content. Again, this is the curb cut effect in action. Subtitles, originally developed for the hearing-impaired now have extended value. This is the main argument we make; irrespective of any legal laws or requirements, designing for accessibility just generally creates a better user experience.
Of course, beyond making things better for all people, there is another substantial motivating factor for businesses around the world: increased market share and revenue. Taken together, people with disabilities have a very large disposable income, as do their family and friends, many of whom care more about accessibility than those without personal connections to people with disabilities. And when you consider the more than 5 billion people around the world with disabilities and their friends and family who tend to prefer brands that prioritize accessibility, the estimated disposable income for this group is in excess of $12 trillion U.S. dollars (2020 data).
People with disabilities want to participate in all the things that people without disabilities participate in. Products and services that are not accessible actively exclude persons with disabilities from using them and participating in online life and being connected.
In short, here is why organizations should consider accessibility now:
You enable inclusion of millions of people to services and products that they are otherwise excluded from
Achieving accessibility helps you improve the user experience for all users
By making your website accessible, you improve the chances of it being found in search
Your brand image improves. Being accessible and working toward inclusivity can be leveraged to differentiate your brand
You’ll avoid legal issues. In the U.S. alone in 2022, there were over 2,300 web accessibility lawsuits filed
View the webinar for a few great examples of innovative accessibility design, as well as a famous accessibility lawsuit.
Compliance vs. conformance
So what is the difference between compliance and conformance? Many people confuse these terms.
Conformance is conforming to standards such as WCAG. Compliance is complying to laws such as ADA, 508, EN 301 549, EAA and others. And, coincidentally, all those laws refer to WCAG. So you need to be conformant to the WCAG standards so you’re compliant to the laws.
The European Accessibility Act timeline
There are a few key dates to keep in mind with regard to the EAA.
June 2019 – The EU Parliament approved the EU Directive 2019/882, also known as the European Accessibility Act (EAA)
June 2022 – EU member states must pass the necessary national implementation laws
June 2025 – EAA will be enforced for products and services identified as most important for people with accessibilities; five year transition period begins. If a service provider decides to replace an old product that was in use before June 2025, the new product they use must comply with the accessibility requirements of the the EAA
June 2030 – Transition period ends
It’s important to keep in mind that the five-year transition period only relates to existing products that are not accessible. But it’s not advisable to delay, thinking that five years gives you plenty of time. Building a major app, such as a banking app, e-retail app or transport app is a big and complicated job. Teams will need to be trained: development, UX, QA, management and more. So, it’s important not to delay. And, this transition period does not apply to new products. If you are working on a new product, that must be accessible as of June 2025.
So how do you get started on your accessibility?
Unlike GDPR, improving digital accessibility is not a one-time effort. This requires a long-term change management effort and continuous improvement. Applause has an accessibility maturity framework that has 4 different levels, each with five different criteria for advancement to the next level. It takes time — often many years — for organizations that are starting out at the Informal level to reach the Optimize level. Organizations must set their vision and target timeframe for accessibility.
If you’re just starting out, here are a few key tips targeted at different audiences:
Researchers and designers (concept development)
Offer accessibility trainings for researchers and designers
Install automated accessibility tools in your design system
Developers and QA (technical implementation)
Offer accessibility trainings for developers and QA
Install automated accessibility tools in your development environment and browser
Decision makers, including product owners
Understand to which degree your products and services are accessible by running an accessibility audit.
Identify key members within your organization that already have some accessibility knowledge, experience or interest and wants to champion accessibility
Define a roadmap to deploy accessibility in your organization along with KPIs to measure progress
The gold standard and best practices is really to design, develop and test with people with disabilities and not just for them. Applause works with clients to integrate accessibility into every phase of the software development lifecycle with the emphasis on investing early on, to prevent defects instead of having to fix things later in the SDLC when it is a lot more costly. It’s key to conduct user research and collect feedback from people with disabilities and also carry out design reviews with accessibility experts as well.
There are many free resources available to help you on your accessibility journey, but Applause also supports organizations with accessibility consulting throughout the entire process, including customized training with our experts and PWD testers. Access more information on our accessibility testing.
As you embark on your accessibility journey or advance the work you’re already doing, it’s very important that you have the capacity to iterate on accessibility cycles, that you regularly carry out audits, and test during your sprints. The key point here is that this is not a one-time effort. And accessibility should be addressed in every phase of the SDLC. It’s something to truly integrate into the way you design and build your products, and also into the way the organization thinks about its products and end users. It’s a perpetual process that routinely contributes to the innovation of your product or service, boosts your brand reputation, and opens pathways to serving and including everyone.