DOJ Finally Releasing a Report on Federal Website Accessibility Is a Positive Step, But More Is Needed
In June 2021, an ITIF report found that many federal websites are inaccessible for people with disabilities and that the Justice Department had not submitted its biennial reports evaluating agencies’ compliance with federal IT accessibility requirements to the president and Congress since 2012. Following ITIF’s findings, Senators Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA) and Tim Scott (R-SC) of the Aging Committee—which focuses on matters relating to older Americans—have been urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) to resume this reporting. Last week, DOJ released such a report for the first time in over a decade.
Producing and releasing these reports is a big step forward in highlighting federal website accessibility issues. However, DOJ can improve the report in the future by expanding how it collects agency accessibility data; offering a more thorough analysis; and providing detailed, actionable recommendations.
The DOJ report focuses on data collected by the General Services Administration (GSA) from February 2021 through August 2022, which looks at four measures (agency ICT information, self-reported program maturity, self-testing of agency webpages, and GSA-led testing of agency web resources) across the 24 Chief Financial Officers Act (CFO) agencies; these are the agencies accountable to OMB financial oversight. DOJ’s report includes several concerning findings:
- Section 508 program maturity is largely stagnant, with only six agencies considering themselves “measured” according to five maturity metrics focusing on IT acquisition, IT lifecycle, testing, complaints processing, and training.
- One in ten federal websites are not fully accessible to Americans with disabilities.
- Only one of three PDFs from the top 10 most downloaded files are accessible.
- Many federal agencies are not testing their internal websites used by employees.
While these findings help bring attention to accessibility concerns regarding federal technology, the DOJ’s report has a few shortcomings. The report heavily relies on self-reported agency data collected by GSA, which limits the analysis. Indeed, DOJ states in the report that “current guidance does not stipulate testing methods nor sampling approaches, which decreases our confidence and ability to draw conclusions about government-wide accessibility performance.”
(Also of note, GSA has apparently gathered this data since December 2013, which begs the question as to why DOJ wasn’t producing regular reports like this since then.)
ITIF has previously recommended that the federal government independently develop a more robust evaluation of agency websites beyond self-reported data to better inform these reports. This should include leveraging existing and low-cost tools to assess website accessibility, such as screen readers, automated tests, and magnifiers. This is particularly true given that neither GSA nor agencies are performing robust enough testing on their own.
Additionally, the DOJ’s recommendations are too incomplete and high-level to lead to change. The report primarily offers guidance and resources that federal agencies are likely already aware of, namely increasing staffing, improving testing, implementing training, and preparing for measurement.
ITIF has recommended more specific actions to support improvements in federal website accessibility, including evolving section508.gov from a passive information hub to a fully-fledged federal accessibility lab and requiring agencies to adopt USWDS design principles, guidance, and code that are already accessible and include components that are Section 508 compliant out-of-the-box.
In short, DOJ needs to fully commit to its oversight responsibilities under Section 508 to improve overall accessibility in federal technology. Given recent political pressure, it’s understandable that DOJ wanted to get something out relatively quickly, and any progress in this space is welcome, but future DOJ reports need to include more robust, independent data that offers clear insights into the state of federal website accessibility as well as more targeted recommendations at both the agency-level and government-wide level that provide specific actions in addressing accessibility shortcomings.
Twenty-six percent of Americans live with disabilities, and transparency and oversight must play a central role in prioritizing improvements to federal technology accessibility to ensure this critical infrastructure is accessible to all.