U.S. government agencies have considerable work to do when it comes to making their digital services accessible to all Americans, according to a report released by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in late February.
In its first such report in a decade, the DOJ, in conjunction with the U.S. General Services Administration, revealed that one in 10 agencies’ websites were not fully accessible for Americans with disabilities, and several large federal entities were found to have 50 percent or less of their tested websites in compliance with accessibility requirements.
The Section 508 Report, as it’s called, also found that agencies struggled with staffing and inadequate resources—yet another impediment to achieving equal access to information for all Americans. Also under Section 508, the DOJ is obligated to issue a report to the president and Congress about federal technology accessibility every two years—something it’s failed to do since 2013.
Its findings indicate that agencies are in violation of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires that federal agencies make their “information and communication technology” accessible to people with disabilities. This lack of accessibility on government websites and digital technologies means that people with disabilities may face barriers in accessing crucial services and information.
Such a shortcoming limits the ability of all people to fully participate in society and enjoy equal access to opportunities, such as applying for jobs, accessing healthcare, or obtaining information about government benefits. Roughly 26 percent of adult Americans are living with a disability. To be sure, inaccessible digital services and products are not limited to the government, and remains a critical issue for corporations and other organizations.
“The report clearly demonstrates that urgent action is needed throughout the federal government to address chronic noncompliance,” said Timothy Elder, a disability rights attorney with TRE Legal Practice, adding that the agencies’ glacial pace on accessibility also impacts those who work for the federal government. “This problem has very real consequences for many federal employees who depend on internal technology to efficiently perform their jobs.”
Among the report’s findings: One in 10 agency sites are inaccessible; three in five internal websites are not fully accessible; some departments failed to conduct accessibility testing of internal sites; and only 50 percent of public-facing sites within the Departments of Agriculture, Labor, State, and Veterans Affairs were considered accessible.
That agencies continue to suffer from web accessibility issues is even more disconcerting when you consider that the DOJ said last year that “ensuring web accessibility for people with disabilities is a priority.” Since 1996, the DOJ has maintained that the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act applies to web content.
According to Elder, the problem extends beyond those within the government whose job it is to develop accessible technology.
“I am also concerned that vendors are failing to meet their contractual requirements,” Elder continued. “The government procures much more technology than it internally develops. Government contractors are too often failing to meet their contractual requirement to deliver compliant technology to government customers.”
The release of the report comes after a June 2021 review by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that 30 percent of the 72 most popular government websites did not pass an automated accessibility test for their homepage. Congressional lawmakers have pushed for the DOJ to enhance its oversight of agencies’ compliance with Section 508, and some lawmakers are already pushing for the agency to take additional steps in order to meet its legally-mandated duties.
Additionally a damning report released last December by the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging titled, “Undocking the Front Door”, the product of an 11-month investigation, found “widespread failure across the federal government to ensure that federal technology is accessible for people with disabilities, older adults, and veterans.”
The report added: “[A]ccountability measures Congress put in place when it amended Section 508 in the 1990s have not been carried out as intended, leaving taxpayers in the dark about the progress—or lack of progress—to make Federal government information and services accessible to everyone.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), the chair of the committee, released a statement calling for more transparency and better access to digital services for all Americans.
“The data released this week following repeated calls for transparency confirm what my investigation first exposed: people with disabilities are being locked out of government services and are not given a level playing field in federal workplaces due to inaccessible technology,” Casey said. “Unfortunately, after a decade of keeping the public in the dark, the Department of Justice has not provided Americans with disabilities insight into what progress has been made over that time period—which will make it harder for the federal government to remedy these issues and ultimately improve web and technology accessibility.”
There’s no doubt that significant gains have been made in the decades since the ADA was passed but digital accessibility remains a stubbornly persistent issue. Despite the DOJ’s stance that the landmark law also covers digital spaces, websites, apps, organizations continue to block people of various disabilities from accessing their services. According to the nonprofit WebAIM’s 2022 report on accessibility, which analyzed 1 million home pages in February 2022, “50,829,406 distinct accessibility errors were detected—an average of 50.8 errors per page.” That actually was an improvement from February 2021—a 1.1 percent decrease in errors.
In the inaugural episode of The InclusionHub Podcast, Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at Toronto’s OCAD University and a global expert on inclusive design, said the initial web held great promise before being captured by corporate interests.
“A system that had every possibility of being accessible by design was to some extent hijacked by corporate interest and flawed by design and by carelessness,” said Treviranus. “It was more important to make things proprietary than to allow open access. To monetize every interaction than to make it universally usable. To corner the market share than to allow people to use diverse, affordable devices. Because of this abject failure of design, the disability community had to resort to regulations and laws. Laws are needed to prevent harm. And because we seem not to know what is good for us, laws are also ill-suited to this task of making sure that the web works for our human diversity.”
Added Laura Kalbag, a digital accessibility advocate and Treviranus’ fellow guest on that episode: “We've got to try to…encourage people to understand and care about accessibility, to realize that really, it is what we should be doing by default, as a part of design and development.”