Foundations of the Web Accessibility Directive – for a fairer digital world

Business Design Technology

Web Accessibility Directive. The latest in a long chain of annoying terms, 23 letters to add to the “to do” list. Just when you finally thought you had the GDPR requirements under control, the next change has already arrived.

Actually, it is a wonderful thing. Finland is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and the European Convention on Human Rights, so it is committed to realising human rights and fundamental freedoms for everyone in full and taking action to ensure that every citizen can live independently and engage fully in society in all areas of life. One area of life is technology.

As such, the Web Accessibility Directive is about human rights.


What does accessibility mean?

Places are reserved in cinema theatres for wheelchair users, trams and trains can be boarded without needing to step up stairs, and restaurants can be entered via a ramp. Unobstructed access is now the norm in urban environments. The legal amendment focusing on accessibility seeks to eliminate barriers from the digital world and create online services that are easier to access. Accessibility is the digital equivalent of unobstructed access to buildings: just as an architect needs to design buildings to accommodate people with restricted mobility, online services need to do the same.

There has been much debate and plenty of guidelines concerning the accessibility of online services. JHS Recommendation 129, published in Finland in 2005, sets out guidance on the construction of accessible online services. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 also seek to communicate the same information. However, the well-meaning recommendations have not resulted in true equality in online services, and so the Finnish Parliament is currently drafting a new law to address this. Once the law is enacted, accessibility will become an obligation rather than an enlightened approach by service providers. Failure to fulfil this obligation could lead to conditional fines.

Accessibility means that everyone can use and understand websites and mobile apps, and services are built using technologies and methods that allow them to be accessed with different devices and aids.


Now is the time for action

The draft bill on the accessibility of online services, which is currently going through Parliament, will be known as the Act on the Provision of Digital Services. The law is based on the EU Web Accessibility Directive. This directive has already passed the fledgeling stage: in December 2019, it celebrated its third birthday.

It is likely that the act enacted at the beginning of 2019 will primarily apply to public administration websites, transaction services and mobile apps, as well as other publicly-funded online services. (It is still not entirely clear which services the law will apply to and which will be considered exceptions.)

Companies would also be advised to keep their ears to the ground, as the change will apply to some private businesses such as vehicle inspection stations and non-life insurance companies that handle public administration duties based on the law. And we firmly believe that the accessibility requirements will eventually apply to everyone.

Obligations need to be addressed immediately. The timetable for the requirements is somewhat complicated: Online services and websites published on or after 23 September 2018 must comply with the accessibility requirements by 23 September 2019. Websites and services published before 23 September 2018 will have one additional year to adjust to the requirements, and they must be compliant in September 2020. Mobile apps have the longest transition period – until June 2021 – which is strange in the sense that it is easier to make mobile apps that follow the accessibility criteria, but that is how the law has been made.

The four principles of accessibility

The four principles that underpin accessibility are that the service is perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. When the four principles are realised, the website meets the accessibility requirements. You can use various tools to evaluate the accessibility of your websites and services, and you can naturally ask us for help in auditing the site. The accessibility requirements should be kept in mind when tenders are requested for new website projects connected to public administration.

The Web Accessibility Directive and the associated requirements will keep people busy to begin with, but the outcome will eventually manifest itself in the same way as unobstructed access has become a part of the urban environment: low-floor trams are a part of the cityscape, and ramps and sufficiently wide doors are the norm in construction. For most people, the changes will have little to no impact on their everyday lives, but, for some people, a ramp represents a great opportunity and a revolution in enabling them to live the same life as everyone else.


Does your online service meet the AA standard set out in the Web Accessibility Directive for the use of fonts and contrast (WCAG 2.1 AA)?


Accessibility also applies to content

Of the principles discussed above, understandability is particularly difficult to interpret and evaluate. However, it is the principle that relates most directly to the content of services, as the other criteria are largely based on technical frameworks and methods of implementation.

Make your online content understandable by using clear language, dividing texts up into easy-to-read sections, using plenty of descriptive sub-headings (as we have tried to do in this blog post), illustrating text or offering content in video format, and making descriptive link texts.

Which of these links do you think would be easier to understand: Read about accessibility or read more? From the perspective of accessibility, the answer is simple: the first option contains information about the content that the link leads to, while the other is non-specific.

Accessibility in a nutshell:

  • The accessibility of websites will be controlled by legislation known as the Act on the Provision of Digital Services. The act is based on the EU Web Accessibility Directive.
  • This legislation seeks to ensure that all users can use digital services irrespective of whether they have any hearing or visual impairments, difficulties with motor skills or other functional limitations.
  • The change will primarily affect public administrative bodies, but it will also affect publicly-funded companies and companies that discharge public administrative duties.
  • New and recently-published online services must comply with the requirements by 23 September 2019.
  • A lack of accessibility may be punishable by a suspended fine.
  • The Ministry of Finance’s website provides further information on the accessibility requirements
  • For basic details on accessibility, see and (mostly in Finnish)

Accessibility checklist for calls for tenders

Adapt this checklist to suit your context and append it to your next call for tenders. Keep in mind that it is not the goal to meet either all or none of the accessibility targets. The aim is to make online services as accessible as possible within reasonable limits. Development plans can be prepared for any recognised shortcomings, and entities can express their willingness to receive development ideas and allocate specific resources to improving accessibility.

  • The design of the online service takes accessibility into consideration for all end devices
  • The online service operates flawlessly on all officially supported browsers
  • The technical implementation complies with the WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines
  • The online service has an accessibility statement (an unofficial statement explaining the accessibility principles of the site. See the Tays accessibility statement for a particularly honest account).
  • An external auditor should conduct usability and accessibility testing on online services (for example, see the Pixels’ accessibility audit)




Inquire about accessibility auditing

Still have questions about accessibility? Not sure how to approach evaluating your online service? Leave us a message and we’ll help you either audit an existing digital service or help build a new one according the criteria.