Skip to content
23 September 2019

The new accessibility law is here! It will make digital services better for everyone.

If your service will be hit by the legislation, implementing accessibility is not optional. But all services can benefit from it. 

The European Accessibility Act was proposed in 2015 to ensure better future accessibility for digital services. The related directive was transposed into Finnish legislation in 2018 and has entered into force today, on Monday, 23 September 2019.

So, what does accessibility mean exactly? According to the Cambridge Dictionary:

accessibility

  • the fact of being able to be reached or obtained easily
  • the quality of being easy to understand

In the digital world, it refers to the usability of a service for everyone, including people with special needs due to sensory limitations, mental and physical disabilities, or injuries. Accessibility can help senior citizens and people with blindness, deafness, impaired motor function, developmental disorders, dyslexia or dated hardware.

The Act estimates that a staggering 80 million people in the European Union would benefit from, if not outright require, accessible digital services in their daily lives.

Put the “lit” in your accessibility

To recap, if your service is hit by the legislation, implementing accessibility is not optional. All services can benefit from accessibility, however. Google’s search algorithm ranks accessible websites higher and, without accessibility, you could potentially leave out a large portion of your user base. The estimates vary, but as much as 30–40% of people may benefit, if not outright require, accessible services.

  • 20% of Finnish people are aged 65 or more
  • 15% have hearing difficulties
  • 10% have some form of dyslexia
  • 8% of men have some level of color blindness
  • 4% have visual impairments

The legislative requirements are very close to the AA class of the well-established WCAG 2.1 digital accessibility standard defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). In addition, a service affected by the Accessibility Act is expected to provide two things:

  • an accessible feedback channel offering information on how the feedback will be used and with a designated contact person; and
  • documentation on any parts of the service lacking accessibility, the reasons for these shortcomings, methods of getting alternative accessible services for those parts, a contact person and instructions on what to do if any answer to accessibility feedback or alternative service queries isn’t satisfactory.

The exact approach to improving accessibility differs based on the platform and whether the service is still in development or not. Accessibility is a layer, not a feature, so it should ideally be baked in from the very beginning and is typically more difficult to improve afterwards.

You gotta know it to own it

Whatever the case may be, implementation can only begin when designers and developers have the necessary knowledge and tools. Many validation tools are incredibly helpful by parsing through and explaining why some practices are problematic and how to fix various deficiencies.

Good examples are design helper Stark, React validator react-axe, Google’s Accessibility Scanner app for Android, and Chrome Dev Tools’ built-in website accessibility audit.

Validating accessibility at regular intervals is essential, and adding small-scale accessibility testing to the everyday development process will go a long way towards a long-term solution. It is good practice to have validation as a part of each story’s Definition of Done while doing Scrum. When working to improve an existing service’s accessibility despite prior neglect, validation is one of the first things to do in addition to training.

Does the Accessibility Act affect me?

The directive applies to public institutions and service providers, and even some from the private sector. To be precise, it affects:

  • Public authorities
    • National and municipal bodies like ministries and schools
    • Universities and universities of applied sciences
    • Public organizations and institutions
  • Some private sector entities
    • Public utilities or statutory services like insurance, car inspections and water, energy, investment and banking services
    • Organizations and companies funded by public authorities
    • Companies offering services for public authorities

The Accessibility Act will be enforced in phases. The first phase will start on Monday, 23 September, when websites published after 9/2018 are expected to be accessible. The second phase begins on 23 September 2020 and concerns all websites regardless of the go-live date. Mobile app publishers have it a little easier, as apps are not required to comply with the requirements until 23 June 2021.

With the changes related to PSD2 happening right now, the financial sector in particular is getting a slew of new legislation affecting businesses around Europe.

The EU directive doesn’t specify any sanctions, but national law gives public officials the authority to penalize negligence. It remains to be seen what the first cases might be, but they’re probably just around the corner. It’s best to not risk being the cautionary example and end up as the center of attention.

Conclusions

In 2019, accessibility is no longer a choice for digital services – it’s a mandatory layer to address. And for entities providing public services, the law gives an extra nudge.

Luckily, the information needed to improve accessibility is all there, and the tools offer great support. There are a bunch of people out there who are unable to use a big part of services, and being the first of the competition to give them a warm welcome will surely not only bring in profits, but also create positive change in the world.

If you’re interested in improving the accessibility of your digital services, we are more than happy to get you on the right track! Currently we are working on improving accessibility for instance with VR.

Written by

Ville Pelkonen

Ville is our senior software engineer, a React Native prodigy and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. On his free time, he cooks naked, participates in and arranges all sorts of role-playing events, takes care of his friends’ cats and is also one of the five people who still play Pokemon Go.