GSA finds federal tech accessibility challenges driven by lack of staff, resources

The General Services Administration found agencies that don't dedicate enough staff to Section 508 efforts often struggle to conform with digital accessibility ...

The disappointing results from the General Services Administration’s landmark Section 508 report also come with the hope that increased transparency will drive more staff and resources for federal technology accessibility efforts.

GSA’s assessment released last week shows that, with a few exceptions, agencies are struggling to meet their obligations to provide persons with disabilities with accessible information and communications technologies.

Relying on self-reported results, the assessment measured how agencies are conforming to Section 508 standards for digital content, including websites, electronic documents, videos, hardware, software, mobile apps and kiosks.

On average, that conformance in fiscal 2023 was low, measuring 1.79 out of a 5.0 scale, GSA found. For instance, less than 30% of the most popular federal websites and internal sites fully conform to Section 508 requirements set by the U.S. Access Board.

Ultimately, 76% of agencies fall within the low maturity and conformance categories for Section 508.

“Overall compliance to Section 508 is well below expectations given the federal government has had over 20 years to implement programs capable of achieving and maintaining modern ICT Standards,” the assessment states.

Unsurprisingly, agencies with more mature Section 508 programs tended to conform better to the standards. And the assessment found that agencies that dedicated more staff to Section 508 tended to have more mature programs.

Out of the 249 federal entities that responded to GSA’s assessment, 93 reported having less than one Section 508 full-time equivalent staff, and 36 reported having none at all.

“Simply put, Section 508 Programs that don’t have sufficient staff can’t perform adequate Section 508 work,” the assessment states.

Mike Gifford, senior strategist at CivicActions, said the assessment shows agencies that have invested in Section 508 knowledge and expertise tend to have better mechanisms for addressing technology accessibility issues.

“There’s just so many places where they demonstrated that accessibility has been under resourced by agencies, and that more staff are needed and more funding is needed to produce better results,” Gifford said.

The new GSA assessment comes just weeks after the White House Office of Management and Budget issued its first Section 508 memo in a decade. OMB’s memo directs agencies to establish Section 508 programs with “appropriate resources,” including staff, technology and tools.

“Agencies are being instructed, if you need more money to go into work on accessibility, put that into your budget request going ahead,” Gifford said. “Again, that’s a clear message that accessibility is something that agencies need to scale up, and that there will be resources for that.”

GSA’s assessment recommends agencies include information about their Section 508 efforts in their annual budget requests “to highlight necessary resources to improve ICT accessibility, likely leading to better Section 508 conformance.”

The 391-page document is GSA’s first assessment of government-wide Section 508 efforts, but it won’t be the last: the fiscal 2023 appropriations bill requires GSA to submit an updated assessment every year.

“For agencies, knowing . . . that they have to do this every year, hopefully, they will begin to say, ‘Okay, well, we need to set up for this now,’” Gifford said.

Congressional action on Section 508?

GSA’s assessment also recommends Congress consider updating Section 508 to more clearly define which federal agencies are subject to the law’s requirements, as well as to update the language to account for changes in technology.

Gifford said there has been a lot of uncertainty around Section 508 compliance, creating a possible opening for Congress to more clearly delineate the responsibilities of federal agencies.

“Who needs to deal with this? And what is the responsibility for federal agencies? And what are the consequences if a federal agency does not comply?” Gifford said. “There are lots of federal agencies that are not complying. Congress needs to make it clear what the expectations are of federal agencies and others as well.”

Gifford also pointed to how current Section 508 standards are based on version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines published in 2008.

“Which is just shortly after the first iPhone was produced,” he added. “We don’t live in that world anymore, and a lot of those assumptions are irrelevant. We need to have all agencies adopting the latest WCAG standard, if not aligning with the European Union’s EN 301 549 standard.”

The assessment also recommends Congress explore avenues to more “proactively enforce” Section 508 compliance, the assessment continues, given agencies’ low conformance with the standards. And it suggests lawmakers look into the major federal technology contractors to improve the accessibility of “high-use” products.

Meanwhile, the assessment includes a raft of recommendations for federal agencies and oversight bodies as well. It suggests the federal government explore the creation of a Section 508 shared services model to provide testing, tools and other accessibility-related products and services.

It recommends agencies increase both automated and manual Section 508 conformance testing, validation and defect remediation before deploying new products and services, as well as to “hold vendors accountable for conformant deliverables prior to acceptance.”

More than half of the respondents to the assessment said they did not conduct conformance testing prior to acceptance with any frequency.

The assessment also recommends agencies make sure they include accessibility requirements in their procurements and include more users with disabilities when creating technology requirements.

“Agencies should collaborate within the federal government to share and promote best practices for including users with disabilities throughout technology lifecycles, which will ensure diverse perspectives are taken into account when designing, developing or procuring ICT, leading to more usable and accessible digital solutions for all,” the assessment states.

Meanwhile, GSA’s assessment found a “general lack of performance accountability for senior leadership and little to no consequence for nonconformance.” It recommends federal management councils start incorporating relevant accessibility metrics into leadership assessments.

It additionally recommends mandatory annual Section 508 training, particularly for those who create digital content like federal websites and products.

“If OMB is working on this and enforcing this, that will matter for leadership,” Gifford said. “But it’s also really important to have some ongoing training to make sure that everyone gets exposure to accessibility when they’re joining the federal government and to get refreshers on accessibility over time, because it is something that is complicated and it’s another thing that the federal employees should know about in order to go off and to serve citizens better.”

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    (Getty Images/iStockphoto/dusanpetkovic)Close up of hands typing on laptop. Night work concept.

    OMB issues digital accessibility guidelines, tells agencies to set up public feedback mechanism

    Read more
    Artificial Intelligence

    Five more reasons to get excited about governmentwide Section 508 assessment criteria — technology

    Read more
    Amelia Brust/Federal News Networkworkplace diversity

    After 10 years, limited maturity of agencies’ Section 508 programs ‘largely unchanged’

    Read more