EN 301 549: The Standard for Digital Accessibility in Europe

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EN 301 549 is the European standard that sets out accessibility requirements for information and communication technology (ICT) procured by the public sector. It applies to products as well as services.

Accessible ICT means that websites, electronic devices, software, mobile apps and other digital technologies like these are free of barriers that could prevent people with disabilities from making full use of the technologies. ICT is an integral part of our modern lives, whether we’re looking up government information, paying taxes or applying for public services. Accessibility is vital if everyone is to participate in society fully and equally.

One of the main reasons the European standard was developed was so that requirements for digital accessibility would be consistent across the continent, not variable depending on which country was obtaining the ICT. Multinational corporations, no matter where they are based in the world, will need to adhere to the requirements in EN 301 549 if they wish to do business with European organizations.

The requirements included in the standard address a wide range of disability types and eliminate numerous kinds of barriers, such as software with on-screen volume controls that only a person who can see would be able to use, or a handheld device that can only be operated by someone who is able to grasp and pinch.

EN 301 549, entitled “Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe,” was published in 20141. The European Union Directive on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications has called for EU members to incorporate this standard into their laws by September 23, 2018. New public-sector websites will need to comply with the standard within a year. Other public-sector websites must comply by September 23, 2020, and public-sector mobile apps by June 23, 20212.

In many ways, EN 301 549 is breaking ground. Here’s what makes this European standard special.

It Represents Many “Firsts”

EN 301 549 is the first-ever European standard for accessible ICT. When it was published four years ago, it was also, at that time, the most up-to-date standard in the world for digital accessibility. (Updates to other technical requirements for accessibility have been released since then, such as WCAG 2.1.)

This was also the first time that all three official standardization groups in Europe – the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) – had successfully collaborated to produce a new European standard.

EN 301 549 mentions biometrics, an area of ICT that is not largely explored by other accessibility guidelines. Specifically, EN 301 549 states that any ICT using “biological characteristics” (fingerprints, voice recognition, face recognition, eye patterns) for user ID or device control must allow for other methods too – either another type of biometric, or a non-biometric means of identifying the user or operating the device.

It’s in Perfect Harmony

There’s no downside to adhering to EN 301 549, as it harmonizes nicely with other standards. The chapters covering web content, electronic documents and software all refer to WCAG 2.0, Level AA. (WCAG is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the universal set of technical requirements for accessible digital content that is currently being used around the world.) Efforts were also made to harmonize the European standard with the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehab Act in the U.S.

Harmonization is a huge selling point for business, because it reduces the production expenses associated with differing requirements across multiple jurisdictions. During the consultation for Canada’s upcoming new federal accessibility legislation, Microsoft’s submission read in part: “The legislation should reference international accessibility technical standards. To promote innovation and interoperability, accessibility standards should be consistent from country to country. This harmonization reduces costs to consumers and helps local economies by allowing technology companies to build once and sell worldwide.3

The new Version 2.1 of the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template® (VPAT®), published in March by the Information Technology Industry Council to help businesses report their conformance with accessibility standards, incorporates criteria from EN 301 549, as well as WCAG 2.0, Section 508 and Section 2554.

Standards for Public Procurement Help Wider Society

Public-sector accessibility ultimately leads to universal accessibility. According to the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority (PTS), public-sector procurement accounts for 13 percent of the gross world product. In an EN 301 549 guidance document, PTS notes that when publicly procured ICT is legally required to be accessible, this has “a significant impact on the functional quality of ICT products and solutions. Public procurement, with good requirements supported by procurement legislation, processes and support, can help to achieve an inclusive society.5

Accessible ICT is also better for businesses that sell it, because of the much wider consumer market for its products and services. In a survey conducted by Enterprise Europe Network, three-quarters of small and medium businesses were in favour of common EU standards for accessibility6.

Other Countries and Sectors Will Follow Suit

Less than three years after EN 301 549 was published, Australia released its own standard, “Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services” – an exact copy of the EU version. And despite Brexit, the United Kingdom refers to the deadlines and criteria of EN 301 549 in its government-issued “Accessibility Requirements for Public Sector Websites and Apps.”

Digital accessibility requirements will by no means remain confined to the public sector. The European Accessibility Act, currently in the works, is expected to cover a very wide range of ICT, including digital TV equipment and broadcasts, smartphones, computers, operating systems and online commerce.

Every five years, at a minimum, EN 301 549 will be reviewed for updates. The standard is sure to stay up to date as new technologies are developed, or we continue to learn more about digital accessibility.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.

References

  1. Accessibility Requirements Suitable for Public Procurement of ICT Products and Services in Europ. ETSI, CEN & CENELEC, 2015
  2. Directive (EU) 2016/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council EUR – Lex, 2016
  3. Legislative Approach to Improving Accessibility and Removing Barriers Government of Canada, 2018
  4. VPAT ITI, 2017
  5. Preface to: Guidance for the Application of the Accessibility Standard EN 301 549 for Procurers and Suppliers of ICT in Sweden PTS, 2016
  6. Downloaded PDF: European Commission, “European Accessibility Act: Improving the Accessibility of Products and Services in the Single Market” (Fact Sheet)

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