GSA expects to ‘improve and evolve’ on Section 508 assessments

The General Services Administration and the U.S. Access Board are looking ahead to this year’s government-wide Section 508 assessment after the inaugural GSA assessment showed widespread non-compliance with digital accessibility requirements.

Meanwhile, GSA and the Access Board are also busy on a bevy of actions directed by a recent White House Office of Management and Budget memo on Section 508.

GSA and the Access Board are drafting questions for the fiscal 2024 government-wide Section 508 assessment. Officials expect this year’s assessment to follow a similar timeline to last year’s, when the questions and assessment criteria were finalized in the spring and agencies responded to the survey through early fall. Based on the responses, GSA developed the report and issued it to Congress in late December.

Kristen Smith-O’Connor, senior information and communication technology (ICT) specialist within the Government-wide IT Accessibility Program at GSA, expects officials will “refine and tweak” some questions.

“There are some things that people misunderstood and we need to do a better job of asking a more pointed question,” she said during a webinar hosted by the Great Lakes ADA Center on Jan. 30. “We expect minor changes, at this point, to the questions. What exactly will they be, we are still working on. There’s a very small and very collaborative group of us working on it. I wouldn’t expect anything drastic to change. But we are refining and honing. This is the first year we’ve done this. It’s going to be an annual thing. We expect some iteration while we improve and evolve.”

The 2023 assessment showed three-quarters of agencies are struggling to meet digital accessibility requirements for both internal technologies used by employees and public-facing technology. One stark example: less than 30% of agency’s most popular public websites and intranet sites fully conform to Section 508 requirements set by the Access Board.

Katherine Eng, senior ICT accessibility specialist at the Access Board, said the assessment helped “bring to light that there are issues” with the accessibility of federal technology for persons with disabilities.

“There’s certainly ICT that’s not meeting the requirements, ” Eng said. “If you’re a member of the public or dealing with ICT that should be meeting section 508 requirements, and you’re finding that it isn’t meeting their requirements, notify the agency. Let them know. And hopefully, the agencies are addressing those as a high priority.”

GSA released the assessment shortly after OMB issued a new Section 508 directive to agencies in December. Among other actions, the memo directs agencies to identify a Section 508 program manager who is responsible for meeting the directive’s requirements, such as establishing a public feedback mechanism for accessibility issues.

Section 508 staff, training

The GSA assessment showed a correlation between the maturity of an agency’s Section 508 program and the number of staff it dedicated to digital accessibility requirements. 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.

Meanwhile, the OMB memo directs GSA and the Access Board to expand Section 508 certifications and training.

Smith-O’Connor said GSA last year created a draft roadmap for Section 508 program certification.

“Because from our perspective, there wasn’t anything commercially available on the market at the time that met the need for Section 508 program managers,” she said.

“It’s a really robust roadmap,” Smith-O’Connor continued. “We are going to socialize that with the rest of our stakeholders, per this OMB memo. So stay tuned. There is no ETA as to when something might be available, but it is on our action item list.”

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