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Expanding Accessibility Laws Abroad Risks US Companies

David Gibson

The great thing about websites is that practically anyone anywhere can access them. This enables you to sell your goods and services from the US to every corner of the globe. While that is exciting, this also means that your website must also comply with their laws, and over 50 countries have web accessibility laws. The EU plus 6 other countries have laws that can risk US companies.

Remember when GDPR hit? There is a similar tidal wave headed our way with the European Accessibility Act. The EAA takes effect in June 2025.  

The upside? Building more accessible and compliant experiences increases the usability for all visitors - expanding market reach and revenue.

This guide is designed to provide companies with a roadmap to the digital accessibility laws across the globe, and hones in on the laws that expose US companies. What are these laws, what are the standards, and what are the penalties for non-compliance? In answering these questions, we dive in deeper into the EU’s European Accessibility Act, which US companies will need to pay special attention to.

 

Context: What are the fundamentals and current standards for Digital Accessibility?

Today the digital world is intrinsic to life. Websites, web applications, and mobile apps - where people now learn, connect, share, shop, and explore the universe are essential spaces in poeple's lives today. Just as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act have evolved to include digital places in the US, similar laws in other countries have done so too. 

WCAG: The Standard for Global Web Accessibility 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), serve as the international standard for digital accessibility. The good news is that almost every country with accessibility laws establish the WCAG as the common standard. So, complying with WCAG 2.1 AA not only ensures Section 508 & ADA compliance in the US, but also ensures compliance world-wide. 

By prioritizing WCAG compliance, you're proactively safeguarding your website from legal challenges not just in the US, but across the globe. Plus the huge bonus of access to global online markets. 

 

International Accessibility Laws That Risk US Companies

Let's dive now into the laws that will continue to pressure US companies to not only embrace web accessibility but to no longer use short-cut solutions like overlay widgets.

Hot Issue:  The EU Accessibility Act Coming in 2025

This is going to be a very big deal. The EU’s sweeping European Accessibility Act (EAA) promises significant disruption upon taking effect in 2025. We’re looking at GDPR level impact. 

Mandating accessibility and WCAG compliance will be required for nearly all digital products and services supplied within EU member states, its influence will be far-reaching.

What’s Included? Virtually every digital touchpoint between businesses and consumers across Europe's lucrative 445+ million strong common market. We’re talking mandated WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance for:

  • Websites / Mobile Applications
  • E-books / E-readers
  • Video Sharing / Media Platforms
  • Kiosks

Who’s included in the EAA?
Regardless of where your company is located, if your website is accessible in the EU, then you must be compliant. Same as GDPR.

Potential penalties of the EAA?
They are not yet established and will vary by member state. If GDPR is any indicator though, those fines run up to €20 million or 4% of an offending company's total global turnover plus possible exclusion from the entire EU marketplace.

Will an overlay widget provide compliance with the EAA?
No. And the European Commission has explicitly clarified that overlays are not capable of providing WCAG compliance.  And if that’s not enough, the European Disability Forum and the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (of which we are a member), issued a joint statement against the use of overlays. Learn more about overlays.

Additional Information: https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1202

Additional Countries With Accessibility Laws That Expose US Companies

In addition to the EU there are 6 countries with accessibility laws that appear to apply to US companies. Plus 12 countries with accessibility laws that may apply to US companies, but are not quite clear. These laws may apply to US companies if they are selling goods and services to citizens in each country, and is even more likely to be applicable if the website is specifically targeting such citizens - whether through messaging, or via a website with a localized domain for that country.

Canadian Accessibility Laws

  • National Law: Accessible Canada Act (ACA) - Requires federally regulated organizations to make their websites and mobile apps accessible by 2024. Provincial laws further extend these requirements to public-sector and, in some cases, private organizations.
  • Key provinces include:
    • Ontario: Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) - Applies to public sector and private organizations with 20 or more employees.
    • Quebec: An accessible website regulation is expected in 2024.
    • British Columbia: Accessibility for British Columbians Regulation - Applies to public sector organizations and specific service providers.

  • Penalties: Vary by province, ranging from warnings to fines (e.g., Ontario: up to $100,000 per violation).
  • Additional Information: https://accessible.canada.ca/

UK Accessibility Laws

  • National Law: Equality Act 2010 - Prohibits discrimination based on disability, but website accessibility interpretation for private companies remains somewhat open.
  • Specific Regulation: Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 - Requires public sector bodies to make their websites and mobile apps WCAG 2.1 AA compliant.
  • Penalties: No direct financial penalties, but potential legal action, reputational damage, and exclusion from public contracts.
  • Additional Information: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/equality-act-2010-guidance

Italy Accessibility Laws

  • National Law: Stanca Act (Law 18/2009) - Requires public sector websites and mobile apps to be accessible, and encourages private companies to adopt accessibility best practices.
  • Penalties: Varies based on the type of violation, including fines and service suspensions.
  • Additional Information: https://www.agid.gov.it/

France Accessibility Laws

  • National Law: Digital Republic Act (Loi pour une République numérique) - Requires public sector websites to be accessible by 2025, and accessibility guidelines for private companies are under development.
  • Penalties: Administrative sanctions like service suspensions for non-compliant public sector bodies.
  • Additional Information: https://www.numerique.gouv.fr/accessibilite/

Estonia Accessibility Laws

  • National Laws:
    • Information Society Act: Requires public sector websites and mobile apps to be accessible by 2025.
    • Non-discrimination Act: Prohibits discrimination based on disability, which could be interpreted to include website accessibility in some cases.
  • Specific Regulation:
    • Regulation on the Accessibility of Information Technology Applications and Systems: Applies to public sector websites and mobile apps, requiring WCAG 2.1 AA compliance.
  • Penalties: Administrative sanctions and fines for non-compliant public sector bodies.
  • Additional Information: Estonia has adopted the European Accessibility Act (EAA), which will require accessibility of other products and services by 2030. WCAG 2.1 is the recommended standard for compliance efforts.

South Korea Accessibility Laws

  • National Laws:
    • Act on Welfare of Persons with Disabilities: Requires public sector websites and mobile apps to be accessible by 2025.
    • Framework Act on Information and Communication Services: Requires "reasonable efforts" to make public or private websites and mobile apps accessible for people with disabilities.
  • Specific Regulation: Korean Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1: Provides technical specifications for achieving accessibility compliance.
  • Penalties: Administrative sanctions and fines for non-compliant public sector bodies.

 

The Tangible Benefits of Digital Accessibility

Complying with expanding global digital accessibility regulations clearly demands resources. However, looking beyond baseline compliance reveals tremendous upside for organizations getting ahead of the curve:

Expanded Global Reach - Tap into underserved worldwide market of over 1 billion people with disabilities. Additional upside? WCAG compliance makes websites accessible to Seniors. Boomers are our first digital seniors and hold $548 Billion in discretionary spending in just the US alone.  

Consumer Trust & Loyalty - Demonstrate social responsibility and DEI. 55% of consumers report greater trust in socially responsible brands.

Improved SEO and Increased Traffic - Good accessibility improves search engine (and now AI) crawling, indexing and rankings.

Lower Long-Term Remediation Costs - Integrating accessibility early in development cycles proves significantly cheaper over time than post-launch fixes.

Superior User Experiences - Accessible digital interfaces are inherently easier and more enjoyable for ALL visitors to use - regardless of ability. This ensures both increased engagement and conversions.

Future-Proofing Against Legal Risk - Get ahead of the curve now before expanded regulations crop up within your organization’s global footprint.

 

How To Achieve Global Website Accessibility

US companies already face an aggressive accessibility litigation environment. Add to that additional legal risk from the upcoming EU accessibility law plus accessibility laws in 20 other countries. This is not a can to be kicked. So let’s get you started.

First, Avoid Overlays - Despite what overlay providers claim, they do not make websites WCAG compliant. In 2023, of all the web accessibility lawsuits, 30% had an overlay running. Plus the European Commission has made it explicitly clear that no overlay widget will provide compliance with the WCAG or the EAA

Conduct Human WCAG Audits - Automated testing alone misses 60-70% of WCAG issues untested. This is why human auditors combine the use of automated tools with manual WCAG auditing to flush out the other 30-40% of issues found in a website, web application / SaaS, or mobile app. Work with experienced accessibility consultants who know the WCAG and also read code.

Get Comprehensive Remediation Guidance - Hire an experienced accessibility consultant to provide a comprehensive audit that will not only show what and where the WCAG violations are, but also provide thorough remediation guidance for developers, designers, and content teams. This is what we do. Additionally we include remediation consulting if needed, which seldom is due the quality of our reporting. We also follow up with a final verification audit. 

Ongoing WCAG Compliance Monitoring - Once your website is properly remediated and verified, you should not need manual testing until you change the templates or UX. Content issues can arise constantly as new products or content is added, and CMS changes made. Here, lower cost monitoring tools will suffice.

Monitor the Global Landscape - Keep pace with legal changes across your company’s existing and aspirational international markets to avoid non-compliance surprises.

Make Inclusion a Top-Down Priority - Foster an organizational culture centered on accessibility and universal usability to drive innovation. This needs to start at the top. Senior management must buy in and mandate accessibility and WCAG compliance - and fund it. No marketing director wants this expense to impact their budget.

 

Final Thoughts: Seize Global Growth Potential from Accessibility

With a multi-billion dollar EU digital marketplace at stake, this is an opportunity that no company selling internationally can miss or be blocked from. Get ahead of shifting regulations abroad to future-proof your organization’s global footprint all while unlocking value for your customers.

Reach out to our team of digital accessibility pros to chart your international WCAG compliance course to deliver ROI for your brand and accessibility for millions worldwide. 

 #a11y

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, and the content of this blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. If you require legal assistance, please consult with a qualified attorney who can provide advice tailored to your specific circumstances.