Expanding digital accessibility across federal agencies

Last summer, the Biden Administration issued an executive order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in the federal sector, ordering a clear mandate to ensure the federal government serves as a model for equity and inclusion. Historically, one challenge that federal agencies have faced in rectifying accessibility inequalities is approaching the issue disjointedly: different teams using disparate tools for testing, auditing and reporting. The result is an inconsistent approach across agencies. Some are models of...

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Last summer, the Biden Administration issued an executive order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in the federal sector, ordering a clear mandate to ensure the federal government serves as a model for equity and inclusion. Historically, one challenge that federal agencies have faced in rectifying accessibility inequalities is approaching the issue disjointedly: different teams using disparate tools for testing, auditing and reporting. The result is an inconsistent approach across agencies. Some are models of accessibility due to the heroic efforts of their team. Many are not.

The federal government is in a unique position in the area of digital accessibility. In 1973 the Rehabilitation Act was one on of the first pieces of legislation, globally, to institute equivalent access requirements for federal programs. Subsequent legislation and amendments – notably Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act – expanded the scope of access requirements to include digital programs. This legal leadership, however, hasn’t lined up with operational implementations, leading to unbalanced and one-off accessibility implementations. To support equal access, the leadership we show in developing legal frameworks needs to be matched with practical implementation.

To put digital accessibility across federal agencies into context, let’s think back to an agency with which we all recently spent time. If you filed your taxes online in 2022, you possibly were asked to submit a facial scan to access tax records and verify your identity. Jamal Le Blanc told the Washington Post that to access his tax records in 2022, his daughter had to help conduct the facial scan because of a disability in his arm. While he eventually confirmed his identity using the technology, requiring his daughter to assist made the experience inherently unequal and unfair. The IRS is now backing away from enforcing facial recognition to access services after outcry over algorithmic bias; we applaud that. Two-factor authentication, however, is not going away. If it isn’t thoughtfully implemented, it can be impossible for people with certain types of disabilities to use.

In recent years, the volume of digital assets across federal agencies and people utilizing them has surged. But this hasn’t been matched with an equivalent surge in resources and expertise in accessibility. Accordingly, federal agencies are expanding accessibility reactively and falling further behind the curve.

Without action, two trends will exacerbate this issue. The first is the shift to remote-first which is driving technology ever deeper into the day-to-day motions of federal agencies. The second is the graying globe: For the first time in history, there are more people over the age of 65 than under age five. Over 67% of this growing demographic use the internet to access information and resources, even though older people are more likely to experience a disability. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 35% of people between ages 65 to 69 live with a disability, jumping to nearly 71% of people over age 80. The older we get the more likely we are to have a disability.

For federal agencies to ensure adequate accessibility management of their digital assets and experiences, they must adopt an enterprise-level approach to digital accessibility. Here are three easy considerations for developing a digital accessibility strategy that will ensure federal agencies’ digital assets are accessible to the growing populations of aging adults and people with disabilities.

Incorporate accessibility into the development cycle

The further along in the software development lifecycle accessibility issues are found, the more costly and time-consuming the process will be. Incorporating accessibility before a line of code is even written makes it easier to reflect requirements in the development phase, leading to less fixing during quality assessment. Testing behind authentication and in different stages of development ensures this approach has as much “code coverage” as possible.

This gets back to the key idea the administration’s executive order includes: making accessibility an integral part of the organizational culture. Accessibility should be seen as part of everyone’s job, including designers, developers and content authors. That’s why it’s important to train and develop accessibility mindfulness in every role involved in creating digital experiences. As all the people involved develop a deeper understanding of accessibility, compliance becomes a way of thinking and doing business.

In a mobile-driven world, focus on mobile accessibility

While accessibility requirements are the same whether an application is accessed through a desktop computer, tablet or smartphone, the small form factor of mobile creates unique challenges and presents unique opportunities. Some common focus areas for mobile accessibility include:

  • Navigation/input
  • Focus
  • Labeling controls
  • User interface (UI) roles, states and properties
  • Color contrast
  • Audio equivalents and multimedia

Another underlying challenge is the difference between the various mobile platforms (e.g., Apple iOS, Google Android, etc.) and their related hardware. These different platforms have different accessibility properties, features and assistive technologies. To ensure the consistent enforcement of accessibility requirements, federal agencies need to be able to test for inaccessibility across various operating systems.

While the challenges are real and material, the benefits for people with disabilities can be outsize. The inherent simplicity of mobile user interfaces means that, when implemented properly, they’re often far more accessible than the desktop analog.

Leverage accessibility management for compliance and inclusion

An accessibility management platform provides a way to track progress on individual programs and overarching organizational goals. At the program level, monitoring is essential. A new website might be compliant with the Section 508 standards when launched, but over time the code will be updated, new content uploaded and new widgets added, any or all of which might erode accessibility. Ideal accessibility management will enable continuous monitoring of compliance, identifying accessibility barriers quickly and prioritizing which ones need immediate attention.

Accessibility management tools also help track progress at the organizational level. Examples include particular offices struggling with creating equitable UX or recurring accessibility shortcomings that consistently stump designers. Identifying these key performance indicators will help federal agencies determine where training is needed. Using the data from these tools, the training can then be laser-focused on specific topics or specific audiences.

Federal agencies must be accessible

American democracy depends on all people having equal access to federal services. Accessibility has two dimensions: compliance and inclusion. For federal agencies to achieve true digital accessibility, time and patience will pay off. Some teams do it well, others struggle, many don’t know where to begin, and still others never get started at all. To avoid harming the communities they have sworn to serve, digital accessibility must become and remain a top priority of federal agencies.

Tim Springer is CEO of Level Access.

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