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Web Accessibility Worldwide: Why Standards Vary, and How International Brands Should Respond

Tyler McConville

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The ultimate goal of web accessibility is to deliver an equal experience to every user. It’s what we ought to strive for, but how do we make it happen?

A quick search for web accessibility will lead you to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These guidelines serve as the universal basis for web accessibility, and every site owner should follow them.

However, the WCAG are not laws. True to their name, they are just guidelines. The W3C won’t legally penalize you for not following their specific guidelines to the letter.

That said, there are web accessibility laws that vary by country. If you break these laws, you could face sizable legal or financial penalties. It’s crucial to understand and follow these laws to ensure that your website is compliant with the accessibility standards relevant to other countries.

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When planning for accessibility, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself:

  • What are the country’s laws regarding web accessibility?
  • What do I need to do to ensure that my website or app is compliant with these laws?
  • Where is my target market located and how can I optimize accessibility for that audience?

Answering these questions may be tougher than you think. Deciphering the immense amount of web accessibility documentation can be laborious. And what if you’re an international brand who has a global online presence?

These are some of the major web accessibility laws around the world, as well as a practical set of guidelines for international brands to follow to ensure compliance.

(NB: In almost all countries, government websites are required to comply with either WCAG or government-issued standards. For the purposes of this piece, we’ll be looking at non-governmental requirements.)

United States

The most important accessibility-related document in the U.S. is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which went into effect in 1990. Unfortunately, the ADA does not explicitly mention websites anywhere in its text. Despite this, it’s often cited by web accessibility proponents who argue that some of its open-ended language does indeed apply to websites.

Even though the ADA can be interpreted to extend to websites, the U.S. government has no official laws for public sector sites. (It does require state and local government sites to meet accessibility guidelines.) But this doesn’t mean that inaccessible websites in the U.S. are protected from legal trouble. Nearly 5,000 accessibility lawsuits were filed in the first half of 2018, and the rate of accessibility-related lawsuits has been steadily increasing since.

Because there are no official accessibility laws, it’s critical to adhere to accessibility best practices—primarily, compliance with the WCAG. The W3C has a handy reference guide that provides all the necessary actions you need to make your website to be WCAG compliant.

In addition, it’s well worth your time to consult the accessibility standards for government sites, as these also serve as good benchmarks for accessibility. These standards fall under Title II of the ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Conveniently, the Section 508 site also features a list of resources that will help you test your site for accessibility.

European Union

The EU recently made an important step forward with its Web Accessibility Directive, which was passed in 2016 but didn’t affect public sector websites until 2018. Since then, all public sites have been required to conform to the directive.

For the most part, the directive aligns with the WCAG. Point 37 of the directive lists four key principles of accessibility––perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness––that are taken directly from the WCAG. If your site already complies with the WCAG, then it will be compliant with the majority of the EU directive.

However, there are some important points to note. The directive tasks each public sector site with the responsibility to not only make content accessible to everyone, but also provide a public statement of accessibility and enforcement procedure. These documents should be readily available to the public, so it’s best to host them somewhere on your site. Finally, EU sites are required to have a feedback mechanism so that users can report inaccessible content, which must then be rectified.

You should be aware of these three upcoming deadlines:

  • By Sept. 23, 2019, all new websites (published after Sept. 23, 2018) must be compliant.
  • By Sept. 23, 2020, all older websites (published before Sept. 23, 2018) must be compliant.
  • By June 23, 2021, all mobile applications must be compliant.

Canada

Canada’s web accessibility situation is very similar to that of the U.S. Nationwide, there are web accessibility laws for government sites but not for public sector sites. The Standard on Web Accessibility went into effect in 2011 and requires government sites to meet WCAG 2.0 standards. The standard is still a helpful document for public sites, but it only extends to government websites.

But there are public sector accessibility laws in some parts of Canada. Ontario, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia all require public sites to be compliant with WCAG standards, and more provinces have proposed similar laws. Along with the EU, Canada is becoming increasingly concerned with accessibility, so it’s only a matter of time before such laws are put into action across the country.

And Canada is taking web accessibility seriously. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) imposes hefty financial penalties on any site that isn’t compliant. A corporation or organization that’s found guilty could be fined up to $100,000 per day. Directors and officers may additionally be fined up to $50,000 per day.

Australia and New Zealand

Like the U.S. and Canada, Australia and New Zealand both have governmental accessibility requirements but no laws for public sites. It’s best for companies that do business in these countries to follow the latest WCAG standards.

South America

In many South American countries, including Argentina and Ecuador, public websites are required to meet WCAG guidelines. In Argentina, compliance with WCAG 1.0 is mandatory, while 2.0 is used in Ecuador.

International Brands

So, what do you do if you’re a brand with an online presence in multiple countries or across the globe? This can get tricky. Do you comply with only your country’s laws, or do you comply with the different standards around the world?

As a foundation, you should ensure that your content (both desktop and mobile) is compliant with WCAG guidelines and your country’s accessibility laws. (An important note: While most laws reference WCAG 2.0, there is a more recent 2.1 standard in effect.)

If you’re active worldwide or in multiple countries, then it might feel like you have to research accessibility laws in every country in which you have a presence. While this approach certainly won’t hurt, it’s impractical. But what do you do?

It’s a bit simpler than it seems. Most of the accessibility laws around the world are quite similar and mostly enforce WCAG compliance. The WCAG create such a good baseline for web accessibility that following them will almost ensure compliance with various standards.

There are a few steps you can take to ensure that your site is accessible globally:

  • Manually ensure that all of your desktop and mobile content is compliant with WCAG standards.
  • Use automated accessibility checkers to make sure you’ve left no stone unturned.
  • Keep up to date with accessibility news, regulations and laws.

The most important thing that you can do is integrate accessibility into every facet of your content. When you create an ad campaign or a landing page, ask yourself, “Is this accessible?” After all, the reason why most content isn’t accessible is because accessibility is treated as an afterthought. By baking accessibility into our various processes, we can ensure that everything we create is accessible and thus ensure that everyone, regardless of circumstances, can take part in it.

Tyler McConville is an entrepreneur and the founder of Unity Compliance Inc., an agency focused on digital accessibility in a global market, with a vision of empowering those in need.