About 120 million people in the European Union (EU) are estimated to have some form of disability. In addition, almost 19% of the EU population is aged 65 years or more. The lack of adequate accessibility excludes Europeans with disabilities, as well as the elderly, from using basic products and services.

With specific reference to online tools and services, EU businesses and citizens have often faced barriers. Consumers have not been able to access certain goods and services and the benefits of digital transformation have not reached citizens and businesses.

A unified strategy and approach to ensure web accessibility would create an inclusive digital society. It would also make the benefits of the Digital Single Market, a policy that is part of the European Union’s Digital Agenda for Europe 2020, available to all European citizens with disabilities.

What is EN 301 549?

EN 301 549 is the first ever European standard for digital accessibility, which covers Information and Communication Technology (ICT) products and services. This includes  all digital products, including cell phones, ATMs, printers, electronic documents, software, and web content. Particular focus is placed on e-commerce, banking, and transport services, as well as the digital content of public sector bodies.

The aim of EN 301 549 is to make digital products and services accessible to people with disabilities. All public sector entities of the EU member states need to make their websites and mobile apps accessible.

EN 301 549 specifies the accessibility requirements for EU member states to enforce and maintain. This standard will make sure EU citizens benefit from increased access to public sector services through websites, mobile applications, and electronic devices.

EN 301 539 aligns to the EU’s Digital Single Market policy and its vision of moving from 28 national digital markets to a single one. The three key pillars of the Digital Single Market are:

 

  • Improving access to digital goods and services
  • An environment where digital networks and services can prosper
  • Digital as a driver for growth

 

What Does EN 301 549 Contain?

EN 301 549 has two main sections. The accessibility needs of different user groups are outlined in the first section. Detailed requirements on how user needs must be met for different products and services are outlined in the second section.

EN 301 549 additionally places focus on biometrics. The standard specifies that people with disabilities should be able to access technology that scans biological data, including facial recognition and fingerprints.

How Has EN 301 549 Evolved?

Collaboration between three standardization groups in Europe, the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) resulted in EN 301 549.

The draft directive of this standard came under significant criticism for a number of reasons. Mobile apps were not included in the directive. Also, extranets and intranets, as well as file formats, such as .pdfs and .docs, were excluded. The term ‘public sector website’ was loosely defined and allowed exemptions. Sites that were live before the legislation became law were excluded as well.

 

In 2016, the following changes were made to ensure the standard was made more stringent:

  • Mobile apps were included.
  • The standard was made applicable to extranets and intranets as well.
  • File formats, such as .pdfs and .docs, were included in the scope.
  • All public sector web sites without exception came under scrutiny.
  • Older content had to be made accessible on demand.
  • Videos had to be made accessible, either through captions or through other options.
  • Live streaming videos had to have captions within 14 days of broadcast.
  • Online payment services had to be made accessible.
  • A strong monitoring, enforcement, and reporting mechanism was created.

When the updated standard was released, Günther H. Oettinger, Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, said: “It is not acceptable that millions of European citizens are left behind in the digital society. The agreement that we have just reached will ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the internet and mobile apps, to participate in society to a fuller extent and to lead a more independent life.”

In 2018, EN 301 549 was updated to adopt Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG 2.1).

Who Must Comply with EN 301 549?

  • European member states
  • Vendors, regional and local agencies, and bodies governed by public law
  • Contractors and partners of those agencies

Timeline for Compliance with EN 301 549

The following are the timelines within which public sector entities in the EU need to be compliant with this standard:

  • New public websites created on or after September 23, 2019 must comply immediately
  • Public websites published before September 23, 2018: September 23, 2020
  • Mobile applications: June 23, 2021

How do Businesses Benefit through Compliance with EN 301 549?

EN 301 549 applies to public sector entities in the EU. However, it also raises expectations for accessibility in the private sector as well.

As the EU moves towards the Digital Single Market, EN 301 549 is an important milestone that will remove barriers for millions of Europeans, so they can get the best from the digital world.

While complying to EN 301 549 standards, businesses will have opportunities to open up products and services to new markets. Revenues are strengthened when everyone can access technology. Businesses open up new target demographics that they might not have considered earlier.

Private businesses that do not comply with EN 301 549 would miss opportunities to enter into partnerships with key public sector entities across the EU.

By focusing on accessibility, private organizations also move ahead faster in terms of innovation. By creating products and services for people with disabilities, they create innovative technologies that benefit not just people with disabilities, but everyone else as well.

By its fundamental design, EN 301 549 harmonizes with other accessibility standards, such as WCAG and Section 508. As a result, organizations across the world can design products and services that a large section of the population can access. They can also partner more easily with the public sector.