The government’s Section 508 transparency problem

Agencies have a transparency problem when it comes to Section 508. It’s not that agencies are ignoring the law Congress passed 24 years ago to ensure federal technology is accessible to people with disabilities. It’s the lack of discussion, data, evidence or even reporting of progress that is causing concern on Capitol Hill and among other experts.

The Biden administration’s clarion call for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEI&A) is ringing hollow unless agencies do...

READ MORE

Agencies have a transparency problem when it comes to Section 508. It’s not that agencies are ignoring the law Congress passed 24 years ago to ensure federal technology is accessible to people with disabilities. It’s the lack of discussion, data, evidence or even reporting of progress that is causing concern on Capitol Hill and among other experts.

The Biden administration’s clarion call for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEI&A) is ringing hollow unless agencies do more to show and tell how they are meeting both the spirit and intent of Section 508.

“Given the current absence of public, governmentwide evaluations of federal technology accessibility, it is critical that the General Services Administration’s timely data and analysis be made available to Congress so that we may better evaluate compliance with and the effectiveness of existing accessibility laws and programs,” wrote a bipartisan group of senators in an Oct. 7 letter to GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan. “Accessible websites and technology are extremely important to these populations—and the federal employees who provide them services—yet there is mounting evidence the government is not meeting its obligations as required by Section 508.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, is leading the charge to bring some sunlight onto agency 508 efforts.

Bob Casey
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) is the chairman of the Special Committee on Aging.

Efforts that, for the most part, have been in the dark for the better part of a decade.

For example, the Justice Department hasn’t issued a governmentwide report on 508 compliance since 2012. The 1998 updates to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required DOJ to issue an annual report.

GSA, as another example, hasn’t made governmentwide 508 compliance summary data public since 2018. The letter from Casey, Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), ranking member of the Aging Committee, Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, pointed out that despite the Office of Management and Budget’s 2013 strategic plan to improve federal technology accessibility requiring GSA to collect this data, nothing has been published for four years.

“One of things that became clear in the committee’s work looking at the VA was that a lot of the enforcement mechanisms, whether it was GSA or DOJ, were not being carried out in the way Congress had expected  or anticipated,” said a committee source, who requested anonymity in order to talk to the press. “A lot of times these types of reports and functions wither on the vine with absence of attention from Congress. This is about generating some action on the executive branch side.”

The bipartisan letter to GSA requested data about agency 508 compliance by Nov. 14.

A GSA spokeswoman didn’t address the Senators’ request directly, but pointed to the “Governmentwide Strategic Plan to Advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce” that highlights GSA’s work  with the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Access Board and the Federal CIO Council’s Accessibility Community of Practice to review existing accessibility guidance and best practice resources and make updates as necessary to help agencies build and sustain an accessible federal technology environment.

Federal Chief Information Officer Clare Martorana said in an email to Federal News Network that the administration recognizes why accessibility is critical to digital service delivery, customer experience and DEI initiatives.

“We are continuing to track agencies’ progress on accessibility to make sure they are prioritizing accessibility, remediating existing accessibility issues, and are on a path to deliver more accessible IT from the beginning,” she said.

Additionally, OMB says it’s working with agencies to prioritize IT accessibility in performance and budget conversations — especially when an agency is modernizing a website or digitizing a form that impacts service delivery.

“OMB is working with General Service Administration (GSA), U.S. Access Board, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to improve public reporting and expand automated data collection so that the public can better see government’s progress on accessibility,” an OMB official said. “Currently, OMB requires agencies to report twice per year information about IT accessibility including web accessibility as well as the maturity of their Section 508 program. OMB analyzes these reports, tracks agency progress and uses these to engage in performance management conversations with agencies.”

More than just data that is lacking

Of course, for some agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, it’s more than just a lack of transparency. Casey wrote to VA in June and held a hearing in July highlighting consistent problems with VA and other agency websites not meeting accessibility standards.

It’s true some agencies are better than others, but 24 years into the requirements and, especially as technology has made it easier to ensure people with disabilities can access services, federal efforts remain tepid. A June 2021 report by the IT and Innovation Foundation found 50 of the 72 federal websites tested (70%) passed the accessibility test for their homepage. But as ITIF went further into those sites, that percentage dropped to 52% for the top three visited pages of a specific site.

To be clear, not all the blame can put on agency shoulders. Congress hasn’t really been paying attention either for most the last decade.

Casey’s hearing in July was the first one since at least 2011. The senator’s request in August for the Government Accountability Office to review agency compliance with Section 508 would be its first major study since at least 2016 if not well before that, the committee source said.

The source confirmed that GAO has accepted the request to review 508 compliance.

“In the course of the committee’s oversight work, it became clear that with DOJ not doing their report, GSA not making the information public and the absence of Congressional oversight, there are some agencies who are doing well, but others who aren’t and this needs more attention,” said the committee source. “We are figuring out whether this nearly 25-year-old law may need some updates to refresh what executive branch agencies are doing.”

While websites and other agency efforts may be falling short in some cases, it’s clear agencies are not ignoring the law altogether. At last week’s Annual Interagency Accessibility Forum, sponsored by GSA, the accessibility initiatives from more than 20 civilian, defense and intelligence community agencies were on display.

“I hope that you’ve seen over the last two days as well as the last two years, that accessibility is not an afterthought for President [Joe] Biden, and all of us who work for this administration. We know that government only works if it works for everyone, and we believe that if it’s not accessible, it’s not equitable, both for the people, who are public servants, and for the Americans that we serve, which includes about 16 million who have disabilities,” said Katy Kale, GSA deputy administrator at the event. “Our government and our democracy have a responsibility to ensure that people with disabilities, both visual and invisible, can pretend can participate in public life.”

Expanding governmentwide efforts

GSA continues to be at the center of ensuring agencies have the tools and knowledge to meet and exceed 508 standards through its Office of Governmentwide Policy and through its Federal Acquisition Service.

Andrew Nielsen, the director of governmentwide IT accessibility programs at GSA’s OGP, said at the event there are several ongoing initiatives to help agencies meet 508 requirements including a new tools called open accessibility conformance report (ACR).

“The benefit that we see from this open ACR is to develop and to define a data schema for a machine readable version of an accessibility conformance report. So rather than a report produced in a Word document that is then typically in a PDF, we are encouraging people to use the open ACR data schema, the definition for how that data should be relayed in a machine readable fashion,” Nielsen said at the event. “We can then benefit from the ability to more readily share accessibility conformance information right alongside other product information, specifications and descriptions. So when we’re reviewing other information and making purchasing decisions, we can include more readily accessibility conformance information as part of that.”

Additionally, GSA plans to create an ACR repository in the coming months to make it even easier for agencies to find and use this information to ensure the products they buy meet or exceed the 508 standards.

Nielsen said a second initiative is to update their accessibility requirements tool for procurements. He said this too will be easier to use and published on open source repository so others can customize it or bring it behind a firewall to use on classified systems.

“We also have a tool available for federal employees only that is the available for review of solicitations posted on SAM.gov. We are still developing that solicitation review tool. It’s will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing to scrape the information posted in solicitations to identify and then flag those that don’t include any accessibility related requirements,” he said. “The intent there is to train up our machine learning tool to improve the logic and actually interface or reuse the logic from the accessibility requirements tool. In the future state, it not only will flag solicitations for the owners, but also using the logic from the accessibility requirements tool give them recommendations for which language to include in the solicitation. Our hope is to improve our approach to accessible or procurement of accessible products.”

Improving testing consistency

In addition to those two acquisition focused tools, GSA and the U.S. Access Board developed an information communications and technology baseline for websites to reduce testing ambiguity and increase consistency of results.

Dan Pomeroy, the deputy associate administrator in the Office of Information Integrity and Access in GSA’s OGP, said at the accessibility forum that the baseline describes how to evaluate conformance to the 508 standards, which align with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

“It’s organized by categories to help users easily identify applicable requirements. It’s important to note that the baseline is not a test process in and of itself, but rather a tool that should be used to create an accessibility testing process,” he said. “While other baselines such as the ICT baseline for software are in the works, the ICT testing baseline for the web is live. It can be found under the testing section at section508.gov.”

Pomeroy said another related effort from the governmentwide IT accessibility team is the creation of an accessibility policy framework.

This guidance aims to assist agencies with assessing accessibility policies across the functions like finance or procurement.

“The intent of the framework is to help agencies prioritize which policy documents they should review and update to improve accessibility information they contain with the overall goal of improving the digital accessibility of the products or services covered by the policy,” Pomeroy said. “The accessibility framework is currently in development and is expected to be released on Section 508.gov later this fiscal year.”

 

 

Related Stories