Brexit: What is the future of digital accessibility?


Hand drawing a red line between the UK and the rest of EU, Brexit concept.The EU Directive will no longer apply to the UK, post-Brexit

For our UX and accessibility consultants, Brexit is a disappointment. Here we comment more about the Directive (EU) 2016/2102 published in  October 2016, and why its non-applicability to the UK post-Brexit, is a blow to the future of digital accessibility.

While there are limitations to any mandate that sets deadlines, we believe the EU directive has the potential to greatly improve the accessibility of websites and mobiles apps across Europe.


On 26 October 2016 the European Union published a long-awaited directive. It required all Member States to, ‘ensure that public sector bodies take the necessary measures to make their websites and mobile applications more accessible by making them perceivable, operable, understandable and robust’.

So far, so normal; websites and apps around the world have always been required to be accessible by legislation such as Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, Canada’s Human Rights Act, Italy’s Legge Stanca, and the UK’s Equality Act. Even in countries where there is no specific law, the accessibility of online services is covered by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

So what’s new?

What’s different about the EU directive is that it explicitly requires the Member States to monitor the accessibility of the websites and apps of their public sector bodies.

The Member states were set strict deadlines to meet by September 2018; to inform the Commission which body would monitor their compliance and by December 2018 the Commission established a monitoring methodology for Member States. The idea was to motivate public sector organisations to improve online service accessibility.

Why deadlines aren’t always a good thing

coloured blocks representing digital accessibility mapWe have spent a lot of time helping our clients meet very challenging (often unrealistic) goals set by new legislation. We have helped several airlines around the world improve the accessibility of their websites after the US DOT (Department of Transportation) published a mandate requiring all airlines flying to and from the USA to make their online services accessible.

These experiences have shown us how overwhelming organisational accessibility challenges can be, when timeframes are short and support is limited. This is particularly true for government websites hosting a large amount of legacy content: it can be extremely difficult and expensive to make this accessible.

Accessibility is about human beings, not tick boxes

Another general drawback of legislation is that by defining compliance via guidelines or standards, it encourages a focus on the technical aspects of accessibility at the expense of the more important human aspects. This can reduce accessibility to little more than a list of tick boxes.

Positive longer-term impacts of accessibility legislation

Of course, there are upsides to accessibility legislation, too. Even when new requirements are not met by the set deadlines, they generally result in organisations improving accessibility in the longer-term.

birds moving between lines as metaphor for changeOrganisations that had never even considered accessibility learn of its importance and benefits. Teams of developers, designers and content authors acquire new skills and knowledge that will impact their work for the coming years. Templates and tools, such as front-end libraries and frameworks and CMS (Content Management System), are replaced with more accessible ones. These changes all have positive impacts.

One our consultants still remembers a training attendee looking at them in surprise, when they mentioned that they had been working in the field for over 10 years. Like many others, she thought that digital accessibility was a completely new concept and requirement; she would still be unaware of its importance today, had the DOT not published its 2013 mandate.

A more accessible EU… but what about the UK?

Since the EU directive came into place it has lead to improvements in the accessibility of online public services across Europe. But what of the UK?

Due to Brexit, is the UK missing out on the long-term benefits of this directive – ultimately becoming less competitive, and falling behind EU countries in the provision of accessible services. Let’s hope the UK government and those appointed to look after the accessibility of websites, make sure this doesn’t happen!