Digital accessibility guidelines and legislation

Floris Jansen

Making your product or service accessible can feel like a huge undertaking. Luckily, there are guidelines which help you to make your product work for people with wide ranges of impairments and with assistive technologies. Additionally, there’s existing and future legislation which adds some more requirements. And that’s probably the better way to look at it: not as a potential punishment if you don’t comply, but a useful tool to meet a basic standard and help more people use your product. So let’s dive in.

Do note: this is not legal advice.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The most commonly known guidelines are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). They contain success criteria, spread over guidelines under the four principles. Those principles say an accessible website is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. 

Conformance levels

The WCAG has three ‘conformance levels’: A, AA and AAA. At the lowest level (A), a product covers the basics, while at the highest level (AAA), all basic criteria are met, but so are more specific and demanding ones. It’s most common to adhere to the AA conformance level (which also includes A level criteria), but it’s still a good idea to meet whatever AAA criteria you can.

Generally used

These guidelines are managed and published by the Web Accessibility Initiative WAI of World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, who also maintain languages such as HTML and CSS) and recognized as an ISO standard. That’s probably part of the reason why the success criteria are also used in legislation. This already makes it a bit easier to conform to accessibility laws; often conforming to the WCAG makes you comply with local laws.


It’s important to note that the WCAG is versioned, but not all legislation immediately updates it’s requirements. For example, in October 2023 2.2 was published, but some local laws still reference version 2.0 or 2.1. These updates mostly add new success criteria (although in 2.2 one was removed), so it’s good to look ahead and already take the latest version of the guidelines as your reference.

Non-website IT

While the name  (web content) suggests that these guidelines only apply to websites, they are written in such a way that they are more widely usable. To make that easier, the WAI also publishes guidelines to apply the WCAG to other IT with the WCAG2ICT

United Nations convention

The United Nations (UN) created the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2008. This convention isn’t specific to digital products, but instead covers many topics to ensure, well, the human rights of people with disabilities. Many countries have already passed legislation to ratify this convention (the EU ratified it in 2010).

For example, in the Netherlands, the Wet gelijke behandeling van mensen met een handicap of chronische ziekte (Wgbh/cz, in Dutch) already requires businesses, shops, employers and schools to make sure everyone can make use of them. If someone needs it, they can request accommodations from companies under this law. If a company doesn’t accommodate this request, the person who made the request can ask the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (Het College voor de Rechten van de Mens) to look into it. To make this convention a bit more specific and shift the burden to companies, the EU also created two directives for (digital) accessibility.

Public organisations and governments: the Web Accessibility Directive

For public sector organisations, the Web Accessibility Directive (adopted in 2016, went into effect in 2019) requires websites and and apps to be accessible. This directive refers to a European standard, the EN 301 549, which is based on the WCAG and adds additional requirements for specific kinds of products/services. Under this directive, governmental websites should already adhere to the WCAG as of 2019. However, they’re not there, yet: at time of writing, only 5% of websites and apps are shown to comply with WCAG level AA.

Photo by Guillaume Périgois

Private organisations and businesses: the European Accessibility Act

When the Web Accessibility Directive was proposed, a directive focused on private organisations was also proposed: the European Accessibility Act. As with more EU legislation, the act does not just add new requirements, but also removes country specific rules, making it easier to cross the internal borders with products.


The act does not explicitly reference the WCAG or norm (EN 301 546), but more generally requires companies to make sure that:

  • products and services are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust (Annex I, Section III point (c); mirroring the WCAG principles)
  • there is an accessibility statement, listing a description of the service, its operation and how they meet the accessibility requirements (Annex V, article 1)
  • and related requirements for things like instructions, packaging, etc.

With regards to that first point: adhering to the WCAG does seem to make sure that a product complies with this part of the law.


There are some exemptions, so not everyone has to comply. For example, companies with fewer than 10 employees and less than 2 million euros per year in turnover are exempt. Additionally, if the product has to change fundamentally (Chapter V, article 14, paragraph 1) or if it poses a disproportionate burden on the business, your organisation can make use of an exemption if you document and communicate this with the market surveillance authorities (more on those later). You do need to do this in each country where the product is made available (Chapter V, article 14, paragraph 8). Lastly, there is a grace period of 5 years for products which were already in use before June 2025 (Chapter XI, article 32)

Do note: it might still be beneficial to make your product accessible, even if you do match any of the criteria for exemption. And even making use of the exemption can take some effort: the assessment of whether it is a disproportionate burden needs to happen at least every five years, but also when the service is altered or the authorities ask for it.

Market surveillance authorities

To enforce the law, each country will have its own governmental organisations which check compliance and can subject businesses to a penalty: the market surveillance authorities. Which ones those are, is not yet known. 

The directive was accepted in 2019, but because it is an EU directive, it requires member state implementation. The country specific legislation should have been published by 2022, to allow businesses to already adhere to the new law in 2025. But in the Netherlands, for example, the law changes aren’t finished yet. There is a law draft, however, which mentions six different authorities (law draft, p. 9, chapter [Hoofdstuk] 8A):

  • in general, the Rijksinspectie voor Digitale Infrastructuur (RDI) will be responsible
  • for transport, the Inspectie Leefomgeving en Transport (ILT)
  • for banking, the Autoriteit Financiële Markten (AFM)
  • for e-books and audiovisual media, Commissariaat voor de Media (CvdM)
  • for telecom and e-commerce, the Autoriteit Consument en Markt (ACM)
  • and for emergency services (112), the Inspectie Justitie en Veiligheid (Inspectie JenV)

Consumers will be able to voice complaints with these authorities to prompt investigation, but the authorities can also check compliance within a certain industry on their own accord.


Of course, there will be sanctions if you don’t comply. In principle, manufacturers or distributors of products should fix accessibility or withdraw them from the market. They can also be asked to do this by the authorities, but otherwise they can be fined ‘proportionately’. The maximum fine in The Netherlands seems to be €103.000 (from January 1st, 2024, the fifth category under Article 23 paragraph 4 of the Wetboek van Strafrecht, as referenced by the law draft, p. 9, Hoofdstuk 8A). Between member states, the penalties can differ, as long as they take into account the seriousness of the offence and the impact (Chapter XI, Article 30).


To summarise: the WCAG provides us with success criteria to create accessible products. With the UN convention and the two EU directives, products are (or will be) required to adhere to the WCAG and some additional requirements. But regardless of what’s legally required, it's smart to get started with making your products accessible.

Floris Jansen
UX Researcher

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