For ease of discussion, we can start a consideration of the EU guidance on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) accessibility by looking at the eEurope action plan, which was the operating ICT strategy for the EU from 2002 to 2005. The eEurope plan provided policy guidance and a framework to the member states and was split between the eEurope 2002 action plan and the 2005 action plan.
The action plan defined a wide-ranging initiative designed to speed up and extend the use of the Internet to all sectors of European society. One of the goals of the plan was to improve access to the web for people with disabilities. In this regard, public sector web sites in the European Union were encouraged to be designed in a fashion that was accessible to citizens with disabilities. On an operating level, the EU recommended that member states adopt the WCAG 1.0 A requirements for public web sites by the end of 2001.
The eEurope action plan was a success in starting the policy discussion on accessibility, but in practice did little to change the overall level of accessibility of public sector web sites. As a successor, the EU put together the i2010 policy framework in 2005, which defined a broader EU approach for ICT. While present in the eEurope action plan, accessibility was made a much larger part of the framework for the i2010 plan. Of particular interest is the Riga Declaration, which set specific targets for accessibility by 2010.
The i2010 plan picked up where the eEurope action plan left off, calling for much wider application of accessibility requirements. In particular, the i2010 plan focused on expanding the focus of accessibility to include the award of public sector contracts and the development of a form of certification for accessibility. The focus on ensuring that public sector procurements include accessibility requirements is conceptually in line with the requirements of Section 508 in the United States, which is generally cited as one of the inspiring pieces of legislation for the EU guidance. The development of a certification approach for accessibility was focused on providing a clear method for determining accessibility. As it stands, a single method was not found, but much research into this area was commissioned and a variety of country-specific schemes came out of it.
The i2010 strategy is now being wound down and the successor strategy is the Digital Agenda. The Digital Agenda provides a set of eight different areas of action that the EU and member states will pursue to realize the vision of the overall Digital Agenda. Area six, Enhancing e-skills, covers issues relating to accessibility – specifically:
- Action 63: Systematically evaluate accessibility in all revisions of legislation;
- Action 64: Make sure that public sector websites are fully accessible by 2015; and
- Action 65: Memorandum of Understanding on Digital Access for persons with disabilities.
Like the i2010 framework before it built on the eEurope Action Plan, the Digital Agenda is meant to build on and extend the i2010 framework to continue the development and deployment of accessible technologies in Europe.
The EU’s fundamental role in accessibility is to play a role in coordinating the legislative and policy activities of the individual member states rather than mandate actions cross all member states. To that end, the ultimate measure to success is based on the legislative and policy environments of individual states. Detailed guidance on states can be accessed from the Laws and Standards of the reference Wiki. With that said, some summary guidance on accessibility within the EU is possible and it can broadly be split into three categories.
Requirements for Public Sector Web Sites
Across the entire EU, currently most public sector web sites are not required to be accessible. Action 64 of The Digital Agenda aims to change that and sets a target date of 2015 for all public sector web sites to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The specification of a 2015 date for all public sector web sites to be accessible is in line with EU guidance going all the way back to 1998. The 1998 guidance recommended a target date for compliance of all public-facing web sites no later than the end of 2001. This date was subsequently revised in the 2002 action plan, the 2005 action plan and eventually the i2010 plan. Tests have indicated that public web sites remain broadly non-compliant with only marginal movement in terms of the accessibility of public sites throughout the decade ending in 2010. So while the Digital Agenda sets out a clear deadline for public web sites to be accessible by 2015, it is unclear what impact this will actually have.
On an individual member state level, however, requirements for public web site accessibility are present in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. These requirements vary widely by country but broadly require conformance of government web sites with WCAG requirements. As an easy division, most of the western European countries currently or in the immediate future will require all public web sites to be accessible. As such, a broad division between western and eastern EU members is made, where western members tend to require accessibility in public sector web sites while eastern members need to still develop web accessibility laws and policies.
Requirements for Private Sector Web Sites
In general, there are no requirements for accessibility of private sector web sites within EU member states. The United Kingdom is the notable exception to this, where accessibility is generally required of most web sites through the Disability Discrimination Act. Outside of the United Kingdom, however, most private sector organizations will face little to no specific liability related to the accessibility of their web sites, web applications or software products.