Major accessibility legislation is coming: what you need to know

A big bill from the European Union (EU) is coming that should have a dramatic impact on the market, and even on the operation of North American publishers. In the same way that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) makes us think of cookies every time we visit a website, Europe’s forward-thinking legislation is bound to cause business repercussions around the world. entire.

The European Accessibility Act (EAA) was approved in 2019 and is expected to come into full force in June 2025. It is officially a directive — which means that it sets binding accessibility targets but leaves it up to the Member States to decide on their implementation. The stated aim is to remove and prevent barriers to the free movement of goods and services between Member States, thereby strengthening the rights of people with disabilities to access goods and services.

The law governs a number of products and services, but the most relevant here are:

  • consumer computing hardware systems (personal computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets) and operating systems
  • self-service kiosks (payment or ticketing kiosks)
  • personal banking
  • electronic communication services
  • payment services
  • services for accessing audiovisual media services — which include e-books, dedicated reading software, e-reading devices and e-commerce

E-books and e-reading software solutions are considered services. This means that the concept of service provider includes publishers and all other players in their distribution in the following areas:

  • Distributors and e-merchants, e-commerce sites and mobile applications, online platforms
  • Electronic Reading Software Solutions
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) Solutions
  • Metadata

For both products and services, the EAA provides for mandatory conformity and the possibility of certifying conformity via CE marking (European Conformity). The EAA provides for the presence of market surveillance authorities, both at European and national level, responsible for verifying the compliance of products and services with the requirements of the EAA.

There will be exemptions for micro-enterprises, i.e. companies that have ten employees or less, or an annual balance sheet not exceeding 2 million euros. A report on a company’s compliance status is mandatory and will be every five years. Neither a lack of priority, nor a lack of time, nor a lack of knowledge will be considered acceptable excuses. Although implementation at the national level rests with the legislatures of those countries, the EAA explicitly states that sanctions must be effective, proportionate and dissuasive.

What does all this really mean?

If you want to export e-books to the EU market, you need to pay attention to the standards and meet or exceed them. If you want to sell content through a website in the huge EU market, you need to understand what WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) means and how to implement it on your digital presence. If you have a reader app that you hope will be used anywhere in Europe, you’ll want to be careful with your Ps and Qs.

This legislation is set to have a seismic effect on digital publishing by influencing both emerging and developed markets. Creating accessibility-compliant digital publications for sale or distribution in the EU helps lay the foundation for accessible e-books from birth that can be sold in other markets. This invariably helps sharpen the quality of the content and provides access to a wider audience.

The EAA states that accessibility should be achieved through the systematic removal and prevention of barriers through a universal design approach. Content accessible from birth ensures that access for people with disabilities is prioritized on an equal footing in the marketplace. Following inclusive design principles means we create better content for all readers.

The legislation does not specify formats, but some general guidelines for EPUB include the following:

  • Navigating through the table of contents (TOC) and text using headings to understand overall structure and hierarchy
  • List of printing corollary pages
  • Robust HTML
  • Read and browse tables
  • Understand the content of images, graphics and photos through the alternative description of images

If you publish to PDF, the content should be marked up and optimized for screen readers, including:

  • Searchable text file, not a scan of pages to image format
  • The structure of the document must be identified by tags
  • Reading order should be clear, logical and easy to follow
  • Each non-text element of the document must have an alternative description

Certified content accessible by specialists can provide a level of quality control and help contribute to the next important step in meeting EAA requirements: describing it accurately for the market. Accessibility metadata is a powerful way to describe the accessibility of your content and help readers find what they need.

This topic covers three types of accessibility metadata:

  • org metadata, i.e. the descriptors inside an EPUB
  • ONIX metadata, i.e. the XML file of data that travels with an ebook in the market and includes all the details about a book. Code list 196 details all possible values.
  • Compliance metadata detailing certification details

If a publisher has done the work of creating certified accessible content, that content must be properly described for the marketplace. The EAA requires retailers to display accessibility information on their website, which means distributors and aggregators selling in the EU must be prepared to adapt their repositories and backends to receive accessibility metadata. accessibility so that in the next stage of the supply chain pipeline, digital bookstores will be able to display detailed accessibility metadata. This means displaying information about the accessibility features of each file in the catalog and, if possible, defining a search filter to create a specific section of all available accessible titles or to filter only accessible titles. See this book on Vital Source for an example of what this looks like:

Accessibility metadata for Out of the Sun

Accessibility metadata for Out of the Sun

It’s time

Every part of the e-book supply chain is strongly encouraged to start adapting their workflows, acquiring the required technical knowledge, and embracing the culture of accessibility. We need to create an accessible publishing ecosystem to ensure that all areas of our digital workflow, from content creation to payment for online eBooks and the accessibility of our reading apps, are fully accessible. Each participant in this workflow must play their part in complying with the requirements of the EAA.

The importance of accessible content and commerce for the EU market cannot be overstated. It’s time to put your house in order.

What is Universal Design?

Thinking inclusively means designing products and environments that are as usable by everyone as possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design. There’s a big difference between bolt-on accessibility and inclusive design from the get-go. I hope this photo of a steep staircase next to an equally steep and completely unusable wheelchair ramp helps demonstrate the problem.

photo of the stairs and the adjacent ramp which is far too steep to be used by a person in a wheelchair

Specific requirements for e-books

Here is the text of the EAA concerning ebooks.

The provision of services to maximize their foreseeable use by persons with disabilities shall be achieved by including functions, practices, policies and procedures and modifications in the operation of the service targeted to meet the needs of persons with disabilities and ensure the interoperability with support services. technologies:

f) Electronic books:

  1. ensure that when an e-book contains audio in addition to text, then it provides synchronized text and audio; => no synchronization requirement for e-books that do not contain audio files
  2. ensure that the digital files of e-books do not prevent the proper functioning of assistive technologies; => the format and structure of the ebook must allow the operation of any assistive technology (example in annex II, section IV [f]: activation of a text output or a braille transcription)
  3. provide content access, file content navigation and layout, including dynamic layout, provision of structure, flexibility and choice in content presentation; => ensure that a blind person can access the table of contents or skip to another chapter
  4. enable alternative renderings of content and its interoperability with a variety of assistive technologies, so that it is perceivable, understandable, usable and robust;
  5. make them visible by providing information via metadata about their accessibility features;
  6. ensure that digital rights management measures do not block accessibility features.



The European Accessibility Act – what impact does it have on publishers?

What does the European Accessibility Law mean for global publishing?

The European Accessibility Law and its impact on the publishing industry: a guide for Canadian publishers (2021)

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