WCAG: digital website accessibility in Europe

Since a few years, there is a lot to do about Web Content Accesibility Guidelines in the European Union. For government institutions, it is culminating in 2020 and 2021 because of a number of important deadlines. A few of these have passed but it is still vitally important to move forward on this. If you don’t want to do it for those who have problem viewing your content, then do it for the benifits you will reap when you decide to do it anyway.

WCAG, WTF? OMFG

So what is WCAG? It’s a set of specific rules that the European Union has imposed to make sure everyone (yes everyone!) can participate in their community. That doesn’t only mean physically getting around and communicating. It also means using being able to interact with your government digitally, since this is a world that is increasingly important.

But WCAG is nothing new, it’s been around since 1999, when version 1.0 was published. Back then, it wasn’t mandated but highly respected. The rules are written by the W3C, an organisation that tries to keep the internet public, safe and secure.

When the United Nations published their Convention on rights of persons with disabilty, it was the perfect basis for the Web Accessibility Directive of the EU. So in 2016 deadlines were set for all websites and mobile apps that are created by governments or made with funds from a goverment to fund the creation of it.

What are the deadlines?

  1. As of September 23rd 2019, all new government websites need to be compliant.
  2. As of September 23rd 2020, all existing goverment websites need to be compliant.
  3. As of June 23rd 2021, all mobile applications and native apps need to be compliant.

As you can see two of these deadlines have already passed. So if you have not taken steps, now is the time!

Which sites and apps are applicable?

Officially, the directive states that public facing webites and applications must comply when they are made by, for or directed by a goverment institution. This means:

Need to comply:

  • Your local city website
  • The tax platform
  • The website of the cultural institution maintained by the goverment
  • The environmental tool, made for the goverment to measure polution in your area

Do not fall under WCAG rules (for now)

  • Platforms used by goverment to spread information (Twitter, Facebook, etc…)
  • Programs used to send and receive information (Outlook, Word, …) That is a different guideline.
  • A tool where the goverment has a licence but is used by the general public
  • Internal applications, used withing a goverment institution.
    Nevertheless, this one is very important for those employees using it.
    Top tip: you know who your user is, so talk to them and fix the problem.

How to deal with the rules?

The ultimate goald of the WCAG rules is not complying to the law. The goal is to make an inclusive world where everyone can participate. The rules are only there to create a guileline. That said, it’s a very good guideline and can be used to hold contracters accountable to very specific checks. This is the way to take on the project:

  1. Define your website: where does it start and where does it end?
    Choose the different types of pages to make sure you have a sample that is representative for all journeys a potential user can use.
  2. Take the rules by the hand and test all of these on the pages you defined. Do not(!) just use online tools. This is definitely not enough. e.g. A tool can tell you that a picture has alt text defined but will not tell you if the text is good enough to describe what is on there.
  3. With these results, gather all the stakeholders and define what is important and what projects you want to tackle. This is not that easy, it will take time and you will need to foresee a budget if you want to change things. Make a detailed plan of what you want to do and by when.
  4. All this information can be used to make an Accessibility statement. You can see this in two ways:
    – The wrong way: The document needed to comply to the rules
    – The right way: A very practical document that will help people that can not access your content, get the information that they need.
    In this document, there are a few mandatory statements, but the most important things are these to write down all items that are not correct with explicit mention of
    1. What exactly is not correct
    2. When it will be fixed, including the exact date
    3. Where you can see the content in the meantime
  5. Every time something is fixed, this document will need to be changed.

So, please, make this a document that is easy to use and focusses on the practical usage and not just a piece of paper to tick some boxes.

Are there fines?

No, but(!) watch out. At this moment, I have not heard of fines being issued. The EU, in these cases, mostly defer to the member states to make sure the rules are followed. So make sure you see in your local guidelines if there is an oversight commission or someone to enforce.

The big but is this: people that do not have access to your content or are not able to start a conversation might be a little, or a lot, annoyed that they can not do what they are entitled to. So they can complain or even sue you if you do not comply with the rules. And more: you can lose face if you have a platform that discriminates, which can result in a lot of bad press.

What’s in it for me?

So, if you are not a puclic sector website or app, is it useful to follow the rules. In short: yes! 15% of people on average have some sort of impairement, permanent or temporary. So that means that, on your ecommerce platform, you potentially have 15% less ticket sales, sold products or quotation inquirements. So do it now!

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