The European Accessibility Act for non-EU members

Learn about the European Accessibility Act and its impact on the publishing business globally.

  • Subject(s):

    Strategic Planning

  • Resource Type(s):

    Foundations and Rationale

  • Audience:

    Introduction

Suggested Prerequisite

Before reading this, you might want to read:

Introduction

Note: This resource was authored by Laura Brady. Laura (she/her) is an inclusive publishing expert whose priority is always to put users first. She has more than 25 years of trade publishing experience, creating and converting ebooks, training publishers on accessible workflows, writing a blog helping developers work more accessibly, and consulting for services organizations about how to publish inclusively while worrying about everyone’s reading experience. She is on the board of the Accessible Books Consortium.

European Union publishers are striving to meet the requirements of the European Accessibility Act, a piece of legislation that is poised to affect a sea change in digital publishing. How this will play out for those of us outside the EU but hoping to do business in the EU is both an unknown and a moving target. 

Overview of the European Accessibility Act (EAA)

Through the European Accessibility Act (EAA), the European Union took an exemplary step to create a more accessible society, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNCRPD — UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities). The European Accessibility Act (EAA) is an EU Directive that sets binding accessibility goals to be achieved by all the member states. The Act completes and complements other EU legislation tackling accessibility, such as the directive on public website accessibility.

Its aim is to strengthen the rights of persons with disabilities to access goods and services. In particular, the goal is to eliminate and prevent barriers to the free movement of certain accessible products and services arising from divergent accessibility requirements in the member states. This would increase the availability of accessible products and services in the EU market and improve the accessibility of relevant information.’

The directive applies to publishers located in the European Union, of course, but also to any publishing house that offers titles in the EU market or sells directly to EU customers, regardless of their location.

Global Impact and Compliance

It is crucial to emphasize this point: the directive applies to publishers located in the European Union, of course, but also to any publishing house that offers titles in the EU market or sells directly to EU customers, regardless of their location. The EAA applies to many products and services, and foreign distributors to the EU market must fulfil its requirements. 

As the EAA includes ebooks, dedicated reading software, e-reading devices, and e-commerce, it will have a wide impact on all the actors operating in the digital publishing industry. Ebooks and software e-reading solutions are considered services.

The Act covers the following products and services:

Products

Services

Specific Requirements for Book Publishing

In the context of book publishing, this means that the following must meet accessibility guidelines:

Publishers are considered a service provider as are the other economic actors involved in the supply chain, including distributors, online retailers and libraries that loan digital books, websites and mobile apps, e-reading software, DRM solutions, and metadata aggregators. 

The EAA requires publishers to produce their digital publications in an accessible format, and requires the entire supply chain (retailers, e-commerce sites, hardware and software reading solutions, online platforms, DRM solutions, etc.) to make content available to users through accessible services so that any user can carry out the entire process independently. For both products and services, the EAA provides for the following:

Accessibility Standards for Ebooks and E-reading Devices

The EAA is broad in relation to ebooks and takes into account the entire supply chain from book production to consumption. Some of the key requirements in relation to ebooks specifically are:

The EAA doesn’t stop at ebooks and there are also a number of requirements which apply to e-readers (Kindles, Kobos, etc.), defined as “dedicated equipment, including both hardware and software, used to access, navigate, read and use ebook files.” For example, e-readers (or any products containing text and audio) must include a built-in synchronised text-to-speech technology. The interface within the product must be intuitive and work with any assistive technology. From June 2025 onwards, the user must be able to find and read an ebook despite possible disabilities or use of assistive technology. The user has to be able to locate the book from an internet bookstore or e-library, to buy or lend the book and, finally, to read it with an e-reader, computer program or mobile app.

EPUB or PDF?

Icons for EPUB and PDF.
Wherever possible opt for the more interoperable and accessible EPUB format over PDF.

Electronic publication (EPUB) is the industry-recognized format built for ebooks, It is developed and maintained by the publishing community and is mandatory to most retail bookstores. The EAA standard requires publishers to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and allow the change of font, spaces and colours, which is totally achievable with the EPUB format. 

The EPUB format is particularly accessible because it is based on the Open Web Platform, i.e., the set of technologies used to create websites (including HTML, CSS, XML), and it incorporates all the accessibility features previously available in the designed-to-be-accessible DAISY format. The EPUB format is the most widely used format for the production and distribution of ebooks at the international level. It is accepted by all the aggregators and distributors.

The EPUB format has the necessary features required for a person with a print disability. Its interoperability allows it to be supported by both consumer reading tools as well as by equipment dedicated to people with disabilities.

The EPUB format has the necessary features required for a person with a print disability; it can also be useful for people with other disabilities, in line with the EAA requirements and as well as for the general public. Its interoperability allows it to be supported by both consumer reading tools as well as by equipment dedicated to people with disabilities. Besides, the books in EPUB format can be automatically vocalized, transcribed in electronic braille, enlarged and modulated in their presentation. It also allows a complete graphical customization of content, according to the needs of the users, and it can use advanced semantic tagging (ARIA roles, etc.) for blind readers.

Regarding Portable Document Files (PDF) which are related to print practices, they can be made partially accessible but will not allow reflowability and availability to change fonts,  spaces or even colours. That makes them unable to fully comply with the EAA and a bad choice for persons with visual impairments and even those who want to read on small screens. Those files are not accepted in most retail ebookstores and publishers should consider first offering an ebook version in EPUB format. All that said, your PDFs should still be as accessible as possible by meeting PDF/UA norms and giving particular attention to high readability type design with large font sizes and high contrast. Most typesetters will tell you how difficult and unpleasant it is to achieve.

Exemptions

There is one derogation and two possible exceptions to complying with the EAA.

The only de facto exclusion is for titles published by Microenterprises which employ fewer than 10 people or have an annual turnover of less than 2 million euros. 

The two possible exemptions apply per title, are:

  1. Disproportionate burden. With detailed documentation provided to market surveillance authorities that compliance causes a disproportionate burden, the directive may not apply. 
  2. In the case of making the title accessible causing a fundamental alteration, the directive may not be applied. No editorial category is considered de facto concerned but it will be easy to demonstrate when it comes to highly visual content like comics and graphic novels, children’s books, and art books.

Lack of priority, lack of time, lack of knowledge are not legitimate reasons for an exemption. If a title cannot be made fully accessible, it should be as accessible as possible, with the rationale for any limitations documented and available to regulatory authorities upon request. There is no reason that publishing houses from outside the EU should be exempt from this requirement.

An important note: the directive places significant emphasis on documentation and discoverability. It mandates that all concerned titles disclose accessibility status and detail any limitations

Lack of priority, lack of time, lack of knowledge are not legitimate reasons for an exemption. There is no reason that publishing houses from outside the EU should be exempt from this requirement.

Enforcement

The European Accessibility Act puts in place a robust mechanism to ensure compliance with its accessibility requirements. It requires EU Member States to ensure:

As of 28 June 2025, customers will be able to file complaints before national courts or authorities if services or products do not respect the new rules. 

As of February 2024, only four EU countries have yet to transpose the EAA into local law: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Netherlands, and Poland. See: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/NIM/?uri=CELEX:32019L0882

I will discuss two local examples of how the rules are applied, but keep in mind that it’s still unclear how the EAA will be implemented and this uncertainty may continue for a while. 

Enforcement in France

Logo: ARCOM, Le régulateur de la communication audiovisuelle et numérique
ARCOM can fine €7500 for any one of the above. And can refer cases to the public prosecutor. 

The EAA was transposed into French law on March 9, 2023. L’Autorité de régulation de la communication audiovisuelle et numérique (ARCOM) has been appointed as the authority responsible for clarifying these provisions, working with professionals in the sector and representatives of the disability community. ARCOM is also empowered to investigate and record violations.

It is expected that companies will call upon ARCOM to interpret accessibility rules laid down by the EAA, particularly where there are still a few grey areas, e.g. the assessment of disproportionate burden.

There are five possible reasons to incur a penalty:

ARCOM can fine €7500 for any one of the above. And can refer cases to the public prosecutor. People fined by ARCOM will be made public. ARCOM  has the power to issue formal notices to publishers failing to meet their obligations.

ARCOM anticipates that determining the disproportionate burden will be complicated. Aside from novels, the cost to make an accessible ebook has been determined to be around 2500 euro. Determining the burden of that cost means determining the annual sales volume or older versions of the book, the publisher’s yearly estimated sales, and the cost of producing the accessible book. For example, in the case of comic books the cost of accessibility can be dramatic but, for example, in the case of the last Asterix comic book the volume of sales could  justify the work.

In order to determine the burden, they will collect information from the publisher including perhaps a yearly questionnaire. There are 10,000 publishing houses in France that publish about 75,000 books per year. It is clearly impossible to check every book. ARCOM plans to audit publishers in random checks. They are used to this as they already monitor all French TV broadcasting. To determine whether an ebook is accessible they will work with disabled and publisher organizations to draft a series of criteria.

In April 2023, a working group was established, led by the French National Association for Publishers (SNE). This working group is concentrating on:

The aim is to encourage all professionals in the digital book sector to improve their practices, whether or not they are directly concerned with the obligations of the directive.

EAA in Irish Law

Logo: Competition and Consumer Protection Commission
EAA violations are subject to fines of up to €5,000 or six months imprisonment in Ireland.

While late to the party, Ireland has officially transposed the EAA into Irish law as of December 15, 2023 in something called “European Union (Accessibility Requirements of Products and Services) Regulations 2023.” It assigned the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) as the market surveillance authority to enforce compliance including issuing directions to businesses. With support from public bodies or private entities, consumers can initiate legal actions against non-compliant businesses. Section 32 of the Regulation lists penalties for non-compliance, which includes a class A fine (€5,000) or up to 6 months imprisonment for summary convictions, and up to €60,000- or 18 months imprisonment for indictments. Companies and their officers can be held accountable.

Backlist

The EAA applies to currently published titles in addition to a publisher’s backlist. There is real concern that hundreds of thousands of titles will disappear from the market because of fear of an EAA fine. And fixing the backlist can be a herculean task, to be sure. Remediating these ebooks can generate high costs, due to the lack of appropriate tools, the level of complexity of the different categories of books, or the difficulties in converting them related to the fact that they were created when the standards and the formats did not include accessibility features. In that case there will be a high risk that in many situations publishers may remove those titles from the market, resulting in a great loss of diversity, affecting especially niche and rare titles.

Several member states, such as France and Italy have provided for a transition period until 2030 for backlist titles already on the market in 2025. It is possible for EU countries to get an extra 5 years grace period for the backlist but they have not all done that at this point. (See Article 32, Transitional measures.)

From the ABELab project: in 2022 the national percentage of books being published in EPUB 3 maxed out at 40%.

The Accessible Backlist Ebooks Laboratory (ABELab) project is an 18-month research and development project funded by the Creative Europe program, coordinated by the  European Digital Reading Laboratory (EDRLab) in partnership with Fondazione Libri Italiani Accessibili (LIA) and the national library of the Netherlands (KB). Since January 2023, the project already publiscly released a Composition of the EU ebook backlist and a  Gap analysis of recurrent accessibility issues to be fixed. 

Citing from the project webpage: abelab.eu:

In the context of the European Accessibility Act, publishers are producing more and more accessible ebooks. But many titles were produced in a different time and to different standards and are still on sale. The sales generated by those books can be very low but they remain on sale thanks to the low cost maintenance of digital warehouses. Making backlists accessible can quickly become expensive and challenging when millions of ebooks are concerned.

The project partners estimate that there are 3.5 million backlist ebooks for sale from EU publishers and found strong differences between markets making it almost impossible the identify common patterns to address the remediation needs. 

One of the findings is this: in 2022 the national percentage of books being published in EPUB 3 maxed out at 40%. In Germany, 60% of ebook available are PDF! This feels positively shocking and points to the fact that the backlist is going to continue to be a problem child for a long, long time. 

The main objective is to provide guidelines to European publishers for boosting the conversion of their currently on sale ebooks into accessible formats. They expect to issue a report by June 2024 about the costs of remediating the backlist. Expect this to be used robustly by publishers claiming an undue burden to meeting accessibility standards. A complete description of the project can be found on the ABE Lab website.

Digital locks directly interfere with the reading experience for people with disabilities, disallowing them to take a purchase out of where they bought/borrowed the book into the software that lets them read. It will also earn a fine under the EAA.

Digital Rights Management

Digital right management is set to be an issue. Digital locks directly interfere with the reading experience for people with disabilities, disallowing them to take a purchase out of where they bought/borrowed the book into the software that lets them read. It will also earn a fine under the EAA. Resolving this will be gnarly, no doubt about it, especially for ebookstores.. 

EDR Labs in France has developed a solution that is vendor-neutral, interoperable and most importantly for this conversation, does not interfere with accessibility. Readium LCP is a recent passphrase-based rights management solution, with support for different business models including library lending and bookstore sales. This is a simple but reliable solution for distributing protected content, based on encryption algorithms and classical PKI techniques.

With LCP, rights-owners can efficiently protect their EPUB, PDF and audiobook content against over-sharing for a low cost. The solution is at the same time minimally intrusive for end-users, who don’t need to create a third party account and may even share their ebooks with their family or close friends.

There may be other solutions out there besides this one that I’m not aware of. Regardless, it’s worth starting to think about DRM soon. 

The Ripple Effect

The rules of the EAA will take some time to gauge. How it’s reported and enforced is a topic of great interest to many publishers, both in the EU and outside of it. But one of the bigger implications of the EAA may be institutional procurement standards that just might have a bigger impact than the EAA strictly speaking. Libraries and even ebook vendors may require some formal indication of the accessibility of the content that they purchase, rejecting content for which its accessibility is unclear. They don’t want to leave themselves liable to prosecution, after all. 

Conclusion

Minding all the parts of the digital publishing puzzle is going to be increasingly important as the EAA rolls out. It remains to be seen how it will be enforced but publishers should not waste time getting their house in order. It is, of course, of particular salience for EU-based publishers but has the potential to impact the all manner of stakeholders in the publishing supply chain.  

Many thanks to Morten Wendel Devaiter (Gylendal), Catherine Blache (Syndicat national de l’édition), Gautier Chomel (EDR Labs), Anne Bergman (Federation of European Publishers), Helga Holtkamp (European Educational Publishers Group), and Sanne Walraven (Groep Algemene Uitgevers) for their valuable comments.

Icons are from Noun Project. In order: Europe by Adrien Coquet, EPUB by Firza Alamsyah, PDF by Kevin White (CC BY 3.0).

Resources

Federation of European Publishers, European Accessibility Act: report on the state of the art of publishing standards. (June 10, 2021) https://fep-fee.eu/IMG/pdf/20210610_european_accessibility_act_report_on_the_state_of_the_art_of_publishing_standards.pdf

DPUB Summit 2023, European Accessibility Act implementations checkpoint. (June 19, 2023) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QOR-vhDgzk

European Accessibility Act: Q&A, https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1202&intPageId=5581&langId=en

Eur-LEX. National transposition measures communicated by the Member States concerning EAA.  https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/NIM/?uri=CELEX:32019L0882

Fondazione LIA, E-Books for All. https://www.fondazionelia.org/en/resources/translations-of-ebooks-for-all-around-the-world/

Inclusive Publishing, EAA Case Studies. https://inclusivepublishing.org/?s=eaa

Lukins, Megan. E-books and the impact of the European Accessibility Act. (October 31, 2022) https://www.taylorwessing.com/en/interface/2022/the-european-accessibility-act/e-books-and-the-impact-of-the-european-accessibility-act

Scholarly Kitchen, European Accessibility Act: Working Toward Compliance and Beyond. (January 16, 2024) https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2024/01/16/guest-post-european-accessibility-act-working-toward-compliance-and-beyond/

W3C, EPUB Accessibility — EU Accessibility Act Mapping. (ongoing) https://www.w3.org/TR/epub-a11y-eaa-mapping/

Next Steps

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Content Source Acknowledgement

Laura Brady – Blog: www.laurabrady.ca

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