The Web Accessibility Directive (WAD), also known as Directive EU 2016/2102, was implemented on 22nd December, 2016. The aim of this Directive is to promote accessibility within the private sector when accessing websites and mobile applications. As the EU is a State Party to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the Directive contributes to the implementation of Article 9, UNCRPD and to recommendations in the UN CRPD Committee’s General Comment No.2 on Article 9.
Particularly, within the pandemic period, web accessibility has become a fundamental tool to promote inclusion of persons with disabilities in society. The accessibility requirements established by the Directive include:
- an accessibility statement for every website and mobile application;
- a feedback mechanism for users to report accessibility problems;
- regular monitoring as well as reporting by Member States of public sector websites and apps.
In December 2022, the European Commission released an evaluation report on the period from 2016 to 2019 about the WAD. The report analyses the adoption of WAD requirements in EU Member States within national legislation and other political actions. Specifically, the report estimated that the WAD contributed to the increasing of the public sector’s web accessibility products and services, the harmonization of national legislation throughout the EU, and to general awareness of existing accessibility issues. However, the report also highlights several key points to tackle in the coming years:
- Lack of accessibility expertise in Europe: this causes increased difficulties in providing adequately accessible websites or mobile applications. In addition, shortage of qualified accessibility professionals causes a lack of support to public sector bodies in the area of testing and auditing of accessible websites.
- Little use of the feedback mechanism: this was also caused by the inaccessibility of the feedback mechanism itself which would have allowed to collect complaints about websites and mobile applications’ accessibility. During the coming year, the feedback mechanism needs to be enforced at the national level, giving all end-users the possibility to provide feedback on web accessibility.
- Enforcement must be improved: despite all Member States having appointed enforcement bodies and set up formal enforcement procedures, the impact seems to be minimal. It is important to guarantee the implementation of enforcement measures going forward.
- Training and support: although many countries have introduced trainings on accessibility topics, the activities within monitoring reports are often delineated in a very generic way, making it difficult to identify and exchange best practices that could be replicated.
The European Commission’s WAD review clearly assesses the general difficulties of persons with disabilities in the EU when trying to access Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).
EUD acknowledges the efforts of the WAD in promoting accessibility to persons with disabilities, nevertheless, it is fundamental to highlight how the meaning of accessibility can vary according to the specific kind of disability. For deaf persons, barrier-free access to information, communication and knowledge can be guaranteed only through the access of sign language. Additionally, this can also be achieved to some extent using “easy to read” format. Due to the role that ICTs now play, it is particularly important for deaf persons to have full web accessibility on an equal basis to others. For instance, the accessibility of ICTs for deaf persons will promote more opportunities to access the labour market. Accordingly, EUD calls on Member States to fully enforce the WAD and tackle the issues highlighted in the European Commission’s review through the implementation of the following measures:
• In line with the “nothing about us without us” principle, deaf experts or experts in accessibility for deaf persons recommended by an organisation representing deaf persons need to be involved. It is pivotal for developers to involve deaf experts/experts in accessibility for deaf persons in order to promote the sharing of accessibility good practices and to guarantee that the deaf perspective is mainstreamed within the implementation of the WAD.
• Choice of accessible format languages: for deaf persons to access ICTs, it is important to freely choose among formats such as sign language interpretation, subtitling or captioning, easy to read format or a combination of these in a preferred language. These formats need to be of high quality and ensure the use of qualified, professional sign language interpreters for any interpretation options.
• Inclusion of broad accessibility definition at a national legal level: legislation at the national level and its enforcement should guarantee that accessibility requirements and sanctions, including fines, consider the full diversity of disability types, for example, by also ensuring full accessibility requirements for deaf persons.