As of May 31, 2024, Canada has adopted the European standard for accessibility requirements for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) – EN 301 549. This marks a significant step toward a more inclusive digital environment, setting a strong foundation for future advancements in accessibility.

At Say Yeah, we’re passionate about ensuring everyone has equal access to information and technology and prioritize accessibility in eLearning. However, we recognize that good intentions alone don’t always drive real progress.

In this article, we’ll explore the benefits and limitations of adopting EN 301 549 and what it means—and doesn’t mean—for enhancing accessibility for all.

What is the new accessibility standard EN 301 549?

EN 301 549 is a set of rules and guidelines designed to ensure that ICT products and services are accessible to people with disabilities. This includes things like websites, software, mobile apps, electronic devices, and more. The goal is to make sure that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can use these technologies effectively.

Why is EN 301 549 significant?

There are 6 significant outcomes of Canada adopting EN 301 549:

  • Unified national standard
  • Alignment with international standards
  • Comprehensive coverage
  • Promotion of inclusive design
  • Potential to drive innovation
  • Legal and regulatory clarity

Let’s explore these in more detail.

Unified national standard

Previously, accessibility standards varied across different provinces in Canada. Adopting EN 301 549 creates a single, cohesive standard that applies nationwide, ensuring consistency in accessibility requirements.

Alignment with international standards

By adopting a European standard, Canada aligns itself with global best practices in accessibility. This harmonization can facilitate international trade and cooperation, and make it easier for multinational companies to comply with accessibility requirements in multiple regions.

Comprehensive coverage

EN 301 549 covers a wide range of ICT products and services, from websites and software to mobile apps and hardware devices. This comprehensive approach ensures that accessibility is considered across all forms of digital interaction.

Promotion of inclusive design

The standard emphasizes integrating accessibility into the design and development process from the start. This proactive approach encourages the creation of more inclusive products and services, rather than retrofitting accessibility features later.

Potential to drive innovation

With a clear set of guidelines, companies are encouraged to innovate and develop new solutions that meet accessibility requirements. This can lead to advancements in technology that benefit everyone, not just those with disabilities.

Legal and regulatory clarity

Having a unified standard provides clearer guidelines for businesses and organizations, reducing confusion and helping them understand their legal obligations. This can lead to better compliance and improved accessibility across the board.

What’s missing in the new accessibility standard?

While this new standard is a step forward in promoting accessibility, it also brings to light the ongoing challenges within the field. The EN 301 549 standard, similar to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities (AODA), primarily focuses on meeting a checklist of requirements. This approach, while necessary for creating a baseline, often falls short in enhancing the actual experiences of people with disabilities.

One of the main criticisms of standards like AODA and EN 301 549 is their reliance on checklist-based conformance, which does not always translate to meaningful improvements in user experience. For instance, achieving compliance can sometimes become a box-ticking exercise rather than an effort to understand and address the unique needs of individuals with disabilities.

Furthermore, there is a lack of clear guidelines on how to validate whether these accessibility objectives have been met effectively. The current validation methods often refer back to WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) conformance, which can be ambiguous and challenging to measure accurately.

So what can we do better?

To truly improve accessibility, we must go beyond checklists and focus on understanding how people with disabilities interact with digital platforms. This involves:

Improving user experiences

Ensuring that digital interfaces are not only compliant but also user-friendly for individuals with disabilities. This requires continuous internal and user testing that includes feedback from the disability community.

Clarity in validation

Developing clear and practical methods to validate an accessible user experience that goes beyond general references to the WCAG. This should involve real-world testing and user validation to ensure that accessibility features genuinely enhance user experiences, but it begins with educating and practicing accessibility across content, design, and code.

At Say Yeah, we are committed to this approach. We believe that accessibility should be about creating inclusive and engaging experiences for all users.

To learn more, check out these three resources that highlight different ways people interact with websites, and the importance of improving these experiences and methods to ensure quality:

A look at the accessibility issues you probably forgot to test for

Delivering accessible online courses

An exciting inflection point for accessibility and inclusion

You can also dive deeper into the challenges of focusing solely on compliance with the 2023 AODA legislative review commissioned by the Ontario Government.

We are thrilled to see Canada taking steps toward a comprehensive accessibility standard, but we recognize that there is still much work to be done.

By prioritizing user experiences and developing clearer validation methods, we can create a more inclusive and equitable digital landscape for everyone.

Looking to deliver more accessible and inclusive digital experiences? We’re here to help.

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