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Designing accessible website is important to make sure people with disabilities can access online resources. Indeed, federal law requires government websites to be accessible. But as millions of Americans with disabilities already know, compliance with this law is often spotty. The IRS website stands out as a particularly egregious example, as ITIF has found that its homepage, along with eight of its most visited pages, all earn a failing grade when it comes to accessibility. The IRS’ poor performance exemplifies the difficulty Americans with disabilities can face when trying to execute important and necessary tasks like paying their taxes, as well as the failure of many federal government agencies to provide equal access for all citizens.
When federal government websites are not accessible, people with disabilities—particularly the 7 million Americans with a vision difficulty—face unnecessary obstacles to obtaining government information, accessing government services, and participating in civic activity. All of the IRS webpages that failed ITIF’s accessibility review contained valuable information that would help individuals pay their taxes correctly, view their account information, file their taxes for free, apply for extensions to file their taxes, and receive their tax refunds and COVID-19 economic impact payments.
Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the federal government is required to make its electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. This includes following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the global standard for web accessibility. Content that doesn’t follow these standards may be difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to navigate or access. We scored webpages based on how well they adhered to WCAG, removing a point for each violation. Agencies that earned at least 90 out of 100 points passed the test. The highest-scoring IRS webpage we reviewed earned only 20 points.
Federal government agencies like the IRS are legally required to adhere to web accessibility standards, and every two years the Attorney General must submit a report to the President and Congress evaluating agencies’ compliance. However, the Department of Justice rarely makes these reports publicly available; the most recent publicly available report was issued 9 years ago, in 2012. In addition, every federal government website must include an accessibility page with information on how to report an accessibility issue, but there is no publicly available information on how many complaints agencies receive each year or how they’ve resolved these complaints.
The failure of so many federal government websites to be accessible for people with disabilities has real-world consequences for millions of Americans, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many government services are only available online or when accessing them in person means risking exposure to the virus. The pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to bridge the digital divide, which includes ensuring compliance with the federal government website accessibility requirements. The Biden administration has made increased accessibility a key priority. If it is serious about this, it needs to start treating online accessibility as a priority instead of an afterthought.