The Federal Government Needs to Actually Report on and Improve Accessibility for its Websites
In June 2022, Senators Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA) and Tim Scott (R-SC) of the Aging Committee—which focuses on matters relating to older Americans—sent a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) questioning their failure to report on the “federal government’s compliance with accessibility standards for information technology over the last decade, despite statutory requirements…to do so biennially.” A June 2021 ITIF report helped motivate this action when it found many federal websites to be inaccessible for people with disabilities. Given that over a quarter of all Americans live with disabilities, it is critical for executive agencies like the DOJ, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and General Services Administration (GSA) to increase transparency regarding the accessibility of federal websites and take deliberative action in furthering web accessibility. This includes leveraging existing resources like the U.S Web Design System (USWDS)—the federal government’s resource to build accessible, mobile-friendly websites—and establishing new ones like a federal accessibility lab.
Congress amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1998 to require federal agencies to develop, procure, maintain, and use electronic and information technology (EIT) that is accessible to people with disabilities. In 2018, the U.S. Access Board—an independent federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities—developed standards for EIT, including federal websites, that meet Section 508 accessibility requirements.
Later that year, in 2018, Congress passed the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) “to improve the digital experience for government customers and reinforce existing requirements for federal public websites,” including modernizing websites to be accessible to individuals with disabilities per Section 508. Additionally, the Biden administration issued two executive orders (EO 14058 and EO 14035) in 2021 that provide specific guidance to federal agencies around improving the accessibility of digital experiences for customers with disabilities.
And yet, despite existing legislation, directives, and guidelines, many federal websites do not comply with Section 508 requirements. This means that a particular subset of vulnerable users who rely on government programs like Social Security and Medicare face undue challenges when trying to access federal digital services.
The previously mentioned ITIF report found nearly half of the most popular federal websites did not pass an automated accessibility test on at least one of their three most popular pages. A recent set of publicly released accessibility tests performed just this month tested the home pages of several federal agencies and found numerous accessibility deficiencies. In fact, the tester concluded that “not a single home page was found that could not be made more accessible.”
Furthermore, as the letter from Senate Aging Committee attests and a recent testimony confirmed, DOJ hasn’t tracked or reported on federal website compliance with Section 508 requirements since 2012. And even then, previous DOJ reports are more like summaries of agency self-reporting rather than an independent assessment of federal websites.
To appropriately hold federal agencies accountable for modernizing their websites in accordance with Section 508 requirements, DOJ needs to (1) comply in producing publicly available biennial reports and (2) develop a more robust evaluation of agency websites to inform these reports. This should include leveraging existing and low-cost tools to assess website accessibility, such as screen readers, automated tests, and magnifiers.
Outside of DOJ’s monitoring and reporting activities, OMB should require federal high-impact service providers (HISPs)—agencies designated as such by OMB due to the large customer base or high impact on those served by the program—to adopt USWDS design principles, guidance, and code that are already accessible and include components that are Section 508 compliant out-of-the-box. Federal IT support teams like OMB’s U.S. Digital Service and GSA’s 18F can support and accelerate website modernization and accessibility efforts in coordination with GSA’s Office of Government-wide Policy (OGP)—a collaborative office tasked with providing policy, guidance, and best practices in federal technology (among other things)—to offer hands-on technical assistance to federal agencies.
To further support these efforts, OGP needs to evolve section508.gov from a passive information hub to a fully-fledged federal accessibility lab. Labs like these have experienced success for government websites in other countries, offer tools and equipment to support qualitative testing efforts (in addition to automated testing), and also support the adoption and standardization of universal design principles across the government that focus on developing digital products and user experiences that are accessible to all. Given many federal agencies may not have the resources to independently drive website modernization and accessibility efforts, a centralized resource like an accessibility lab could prove invaluable.
During recent testimony before the Senate Aging Committee on this issue, Ron Holmquest, a disabled U.S. Navy veteran, shared that “telehealth and technology have made care more personal, not less” and that these kinds of services are vital to support disabled Americans. Despite legislative and executive guidance, executive agencies like DOJ, OMB, and GSA have not done enough to prioritize and support the needs of this vulnerable population. Through their elected officials, American citizens have demanded that the federal government offer greater transparency regarding accessibility in federal websites, as well as invest in assistive infrastructure and resources to ensure federal websites are universally accessible to all.