According to the European Union, 87 million people in Europe–almost one in four–have disabilities or a temporary impairment. Any company that wants to do business in Europe must meet the accessibility standards detailed in EN 301 549, which enables equal access to digital products and services. This important regulation with a clunky name has become the standard for accessibility in information and communication technology (ICT) not only for member states within the European Union, but other countries as well.
In this post, we’ll define the European standards and discuss potential new regulations that could impact companies engaged in procurement deals with EU countries or that wish to sell products and services abroad.
What Is EN 301 549?
EN 301 549 establishes requirements for ICT accessibility standards in products and services like hardware, applications, self-service kiosks and other technology.
Specifically, it applies to procurement and selling to the public sector. Suppliers who want to do business with a public entity must state how their product meets the standard’s accessibility requirements.
For example, companies that sell products to a publicly funded university must ensure accessibility standards are followed and there are accessibility features included, such as compatibility with text-to-speech software.
History of EN 301 549
EN 301 549 was launched in 2014 by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), European Electrotechnical Committee for Standardization (CENELEC) and the European Committee for Standardization (CEN). These three organizations are the official groups responsible for developing and defining voluntary standards across Europe for the European Union and by the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
The aim of EN 301 549 was to set requirements for public procurement of ICT products and services to public entities in the European Union. It has been updated four times since, the most recent in 2021. In the 2018 update, EN 301 549 adopted W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA standards as its baseline for compliance.
EN 301 549 was adopted by the 28 member states of the European Union, as well as other diplomatic organizations and countries. This includes the European Free Trade Union (EFTA) countries, including Iceland and Norway, as well as Turkey and Australia. By doing so, these countries are not only easing trade with EU countries, but are making products produced in their countries more accessible to all.
EN 301 549 vs. WCAG
A common question businesses in North America ask is how the European standards differ from website accessibility standards in the United States and elsewhere. The short answer is there is very little difference. In fact, there’s been an effort in the past decade to ensure the standardization of accessibility required across the globe, making it easier for nations and businesses to create accessible products and services.
According to the W3C website, the organization’s goal is to create “harmonized standards for digital accessibility.”
“It really doesn’t make sense to have a set of standards in Europe and a set of standards in the US and a set of standards in other individual countries,” states W3C. “By nature, we all know the internet is global and knows now boundaries, we need a common set of accessibility requirements to make it easier to practice. And this is where W3C comes in.”
While EN 301 549 has become the policy for many countries in Europe and elsewhere, WCAG is the benchmark these countries can use to validate whether a website or digital product meets the ICT accessibility standards regulated in these policies.
There are some instances where EN 301 549 goes further than the WCAG regulations. For example, EN 301 549 also covers biometrics, which requires that people with disabilities have access to technology that scans biological data, such as facial recognition or fingerprints.
EN 301 549 vs. Section 508
In the United States, companies that want to do business with the public sector must comply with Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This includes all U.S. government agencies and departments as well as organizations that receive federal funding, such as universities, public schools, and government contractors in healthcare, defense and the financial sector.
Both Section 508 and EN 301 549 use the WCAG standards. In addition, the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) can demonstrate compliance with both Section 508 and EN 301 549.
About the European Accessibility Act
The European Accessibility Act (EAA), which went into effect in 2019, aims to ensure all people with disabilities and accessibility needs can participate in society by requiring key products and services be accessible.
The EAA is the indirect result of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and complements the 2016 EU’s Web Accessibility Directive. The objective, much like EN 301 549, is to standardize laws regarding accessibility across Europe.
Where EN 301 549 and the EAA differ is in their jurisdiction. While EN 301 549 has influenced the accessibility of products and services in a number of markets, it relates solely to public procurement. EAA, on the other hand, pertains to the private sector.
For more information on the EAA, read, “Understanding How the European Accessibility Act Will Impact Your Business.”
About the European Accessibility Act 2025 Deadline
The EAA has taken a tiered approach to implementation. Member states were required to pass laws that brought each nation’s laws into alignment with the EAA by June 2022. Each member nation is required to ensure accessibility measures in the EAA are being followed by June 28, 2025. EU countries must then complete reporting and review by 2030 and every five years thereafter.
The executive branch of the EU, called the European Commission, will set up and oversee “a working group of representatives of authorities for market surveillance and services’ compliance and of stakeholders including disability organizations.” In other words, it will work in collaboration with disability organizations and other groups to ensure companies are adhering to the EAA regulations.
TPGi and EN 301 549 Conformance
If your company plans to sell products or services in Europe in the coming years, it’s time to start thinking about EN 301 549 and EAA compliance.
Your first step should be familiarizing yourself with website accessibility standards, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and EN 301 549. Next, examine how your current service and product offerings align with these standards; you can use a European Accessibility Act Checklist to help you get started.
Next, consider using outside resources for third-party verification. TPGi offers accessibility auditing services and accessibility testing tools that can quickly assess your website, software and other digital assets. In addition, our accessibility experts can work with you to develop a strategy to achieve conformance with EN 301 549 and the European Accessibility Act.
If you would like to assess your website’s accessibility, schedule a demo with TPGi today.