Section 752 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 signals a new chapter in pursuing digital accessibility for federal agencies. The act requires federal agencies to meticulously report on the accessibility of their information and communication technology (ICT), creating an exigency that might still be unanticipated by many. All agencies must submit their responses to a 105-item questionnaire focused on the accessibility of their ICT by August 11, 2023. And many federal agencies, caught off guard by the act’s complexities and the looming deadline, find themselves racing against time.
This change is more than just another directive — it’s a wake-up call to address a crucial issue that has been sidelined for far too long.
How we got here
In an era where digital integration is fundamental to government services, digital accessibility in the federal government sector has emerged as a paramount concern. The evolution of this issue, and the increasing emphasis on it, reflects societal progress and a commitment to equality and inclusivity.
The Biden administration has amplified the push toward achieving digital accessibility, evident in the 2021 executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA). This order is a concrete pledge to take accessibility seriously, an acknowledgment of the urgency for action and a call for government agencies to meet their obligations.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act further intensifies this focus on digital accessibility by enforcing pre-existing digital accessibility compliance requirements outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Instead of creating additional regulations, it marks a renewed insistence on a long-standing, largely unfulfilled commitment.
Despite the existence of these regulations, recent findings paint a stark picture: Many government services are inaccessible to people with disabilities. This sobering reality emerges from a persistent lack of enforcement and monitoring of accessibility efforts, a shortcoming that has lingered unchecked. According to a recent report on Section 508, a significant portion of the federal government sector remains inaccessible, underscoring the urgent need for change.
However, the complexity and comprehensive nature of the Consolidated Appropriations Act reporting requirement, coupled with years of under-enforcement, have left many agencies scrambling to meet this latest mandate. The questions are intricate and require detailed responses, a challenge that mirrors the intricacies of the issue of digital accessibility itself.
A gap between legislation and implementation
What is abundantly clear from the recent Section 508 report is that while the legislation for digital accessibility exists, its practical implementation and enforcement are inadequate. This alarming state of affairs underscores the need for change.
The Section 508 report illuminates a concerning disconnect between established legislation and practical implementation, exposing critical shortcomings in digital accessibility. Despite the existence of legal requirements, in the case of several large federal bodies, merely half, or even less, of their assessed websites may comply with Section 508’s accessibility mandates. Compounding this issue for employees, the report highlights that various agencies also neglect to test their intranet pages.
Federal agencies now find themselves accountable for not only addressing digital accessibility but also for meticulously reporting on it. This shift, while sudden and challenging, is an imperative step toward the objective of bridging the gap between accessibility policy and practice. Although agencies may initially struggle with the demands of the legislation, the consequences of ignoring it — both reputational and operational — make compliance a non-negotiable obligation.
Unpacking Section 752’s reporting requirements
The questionnaire, created to kickstart enforcement of Section 752, paints an expansive landscape of reporting requirements. One major area it addresses is conformance metrics, requiring agencies to report on quantifiable data that indicates their degree of alignment with Section 508 standards. For example, question 68 requires that agencies report on whether their public internet web pages were evaluated by a combination of both automated and manual testing in the reporting period. But the requirements extend beyond public internet pages and also include intranet pages, electronic documents and videos.
Further, the questionnaire prompts agencies to assess the accessibility of an array of other digital systems and assets. This encompasses email applications, video conferencing platforms, tax documents, kiosks, custom desktop software, native mobile apps and even the most widely distributed multifunction printers.
The questionnaire also includes several categories that have been accorded equal importance. For instance, areas like human capital, culture and leadership are significant when employing people with disabilities. Question 38 asks to what degree the agency includes ICT accessibility as a core value in DEIA strategic planning. Further, question 41 focuses on engagement with internal or external disability-related affinity groups. Agencies that fail to create equitable and inclusive work environments will not successfully retain employees with disabilities.
The questions are not abstract markers, but measurable indicators based on the performance of an agency’s compliance efforts. They involve aspects like the number of incidents reported, the time intervals between these issues, and the overall compliance costs. These factors shed light on how well an agency’s compliance team is performing, helping to illuminate areas needing improvement and identify strengths that can be leveraged.
Guidance for completing the questionnaire
Given the scope of this comprehensive reporting requirement, agencies must embark on the process of responding to the questionnaire with a strategic approach. These four steps can guide the process:
Gather staff with direct knowledge of ICT and relevant procedures/norms. Determine which individuals within your agency are responsible for different types of technology: For example, your communications team might manage your website, while your human resources team might manage your payroll system.
Conduct interviews to understand how the agency uses different ICT and manages their accessibility, including engaging people with disabilities. Be sure to inquire about any processes for testing for and addressing accessibility issues, as well as any accessibility complaints from users.
Based on the interviews, determine the scope and applicability of each question. Remember that one data point may be enough to answer a question. For example, “Has anyone not started [work] on time because of assistive tech?” only requires one answer from one person.
Identify and source any necessary tooling and support not available internally. Third-party solutions can assist with ongoing monitoring and measurement, as well as accessibility training needs. Securing a solution partner will help with ongoing analysis and annual reporting.
Agencies need to heed the importance of strategic consulting to support accountability and procurement processes. If they haven’t started yet, they are already behind due to the complexity of gathering data.
Why does Section 752 matter?
The implications of Section 752 stretch beyond mere compliance. Non-compliance will come with consequences since this directive, like any other, cannot be ignored by agency heads. Moreover, completing this questionnaire will put agencies on the record regarding their accessibility, setting a baseline that will spur improvement over time.
But the human significance of Section 752 should not be overshadowed by compliance logistics. As aptly articulated by Anil Lewis, executive director of blindness initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind, during his testimony at the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing in July 2022:
“The federal government can be the exemplar and catalyst for private- and public-sector accessibility by continuing to prioritize the employment of people with disabilities while providing the appropriate accessible infrastructure that facilitates our success.”
This movement toward greater digital accessibility is about people, equal access and inclusivity. The pressing need for digital accessibility reflects a larger conversation about the inclusivity and accessibility of our societies to every individual, a conversation that the Consolidated Appropriations Act has the power to catalyze.