As DOJ, GSA publicly report on Section 508 progress, US Access Board driving change

Sachin Pavithran, the executive director of the U.S. Access Board, said ever since the Biden administration placed a heavier emphasis on accessibility, the inte...

For the first time in a decade, the Department of Justice will issue a report on agency progress in meeting accessibility requirements under Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

DOJ told the Senate Special Committee on Aging in a Nov. 14 letter that it has been working with the General Services Administration and will release the mandated report in the coming weeks.

“Following the last Section 508 report issued by the department in 2012, the Office of Management and Budget issued a Strategic Plan for Improving Management of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, setting up a program to track federal agencies’ progress in complying with Section 508. The strategic plan, issued in 2013, requires federal agencies to report to OMB twice per year on their IT accessibility/Section 508 program maturity and effectiveness,” Carlos Felipe Uriarte, the assistant attorney general in the Office of Legislative Affairs wrote. “It also tasks GSA with issuing an interagency data call every six months to federal agency chief information officers to gather information regarding the accessibility of their electronic applications and communications and analyze these reports to determine ways to improve agency coordination, reduce redundancies, and develop solutions and recommendations to improve the management of government accessibility programs. Pursuant to OMB’s strategic plan, GSA also produces a semiannual report analyzing agency-specific information across a variety of areas relating to Section 508 implementation, such as acquisition, training, testing, website accessibility, complaints and Section 508 program resources and staffing. Based on this information, GSA makes recommendations to federal agencies on how to enhance compliance. This process has been ongoing since 2013, and GSA’s analysis includes the same types of information included in prior Section 508 reports prepared by the department.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), chairman of the special committee, led the charge to get DOJ to produce a new report and called DOJ’s decision a “critical first step.”

He and Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a joint release that without the report, lawmakers didn’t have “critical information” about how agencies were ensuring people with disabilities can access federal services.

Without a doubt, the results will be mixed across the board as accessibility has been swept under the radar for much of the past decade.

No matter what the DOJ/GSA report eventually shows, Sachin Pavithran, the executive director of the U.S. Access Board, said ever since the Biden administration placed a heavier emphasis on accessibility, the interest for training and help among agencies has spiked.

Sachin Pavithran is the executive director of the U.S. Access Board.

In June 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), requiring OMB and the Office of Personnel Management to reestablish a governmentwide DEI&A initiative and develop a new four-year strategic plan.

“There’s been a lot of spotlight for accessibility because of the executive order, not just 508, but even the physical access of federal agencies. There is more interest, I would say about this topic then it has been in the past. Accessibility used to be always a last minute thing that people would think about, usually, because someone has complained. It has more of a proactive approach,” Pavithran said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Network. “With the virtual spaces that we are in right now, you will see a lot of the meetings that are happening where there’s American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. A lot of those kind of concepts are being used more and more without even without requests coming in. The progress is happening, is it perfect? Probably not. I think the struggle is still exists because digital content is still hit and miss with some agencies or some groups doing better than others, for one reason or another.”

The Access Board has seen an uptick in requests for training as well as the need for broad based and specific agency education.

Agencies can reach out to the board for help on specific technical issues whether technology related or accessibility of their buildings. The board also provides webinars on the different guidelines that they oversee.

ICT testing framework close to being done

Phil Bratta, a public affairs specialist at the Access Board, said the departments of Interior and Homeland Security recently requested training on Section 508.

“One project is on website accessibility within the federal sector that the Access Board has led is around Section 508 information and communications technology (ICT) testing baseline for web accessibility. This project the Access Board had been working on for a couple of years, and it launched in March 2021,” Bratta said. “It sets minimum testing criteria and evaluation guidance to determine if web content meets the 508 standards that incorporate by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.”

Bratta added the Access Board also is working with GSA as it finalizes the ICT testing baseline web alignment framework, which is going to include test cases as a means to check whether a test process covers all 508 requirements.

“It provides the same test results as expected through the baseline for web so that project is becoming more popular amongst federal agencies so that then they can do both manual and automated testing for their website to ensure that their websites are accessible and meet 508 standards,” he said.

The Access Board doesn’t just focus on technology. It also oversees guidance and standards to ensure buildings and the areas surrounding buildings are accessible for all people.

Pavithran said the board plays a role in ensuring federal buildings, national parks and other federal facilities include features like Braille signage, ramps on sidewalks and elevators don’t just use touch screens.

“Federal agencies really need to be mindful that they are really checking out the accessibility of that office space, not just for the public coming in, but also employees who have a disability and how they might move around within that space,” he said. “The hotelling concept, for example, if GSA is going to deploy that in some way where you can come in, go to a kiosk to figure out where a cubicle or room is available for you to sit at that day, or if you want to schedule a conference room for a meeting, when there’s no one actually doing those kind of interactions and there’s not a human that you can talk to, if it’s not accessible, that’s a problem.”

Lowering architecture barriers

Bratta added the Access Board also has been working with agencies to ensure federal facilities in underserved communities where there may be a high rate of people with disabilities don’t have any barriers.

He said the board is ensuring agencies have strategies to meet the standards to implement the Architecture Barriers Act (ABA).

Heading into 2023, the Access Board has four priorities based on their rulemaking efforts.

Pavithran said they are:

  • Self-service transaction machines
  • Electric vehicle charging stations
  • Public rights of way guidelines including sidewalks, street lights and other outside infrastructure
  • Medical diagnostic equipment. “We’re trying to finalize that within a hospital for individuals with a disability when they’re meeting with the doctor or the equipment that’s being used within a doctor’s facility, how accessible it needs to be, so that they can transfer from the wheelchair to a medical table and those kinds of different things,” he said.

“We are constantly having conversations about different topics like autonomous vehicles, the future of what transportation is going to look like this huge change happening, and it’s happening, whether we like it or not about autonomous vehicle,” Pavithran said. “This is a time to talk and figure out what accessibility looks like not just in the interface of autonomous vehicle, but also the design of what the future of transportation could look like. So people with disabilities can independently get on these vehicles without assistance.”


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