Popular federal websites riddled with accessibility flaws

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Nearly half of the most popular federal agency websites — including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Marine Corps and Energy Information Administration — failed an accessibility test, indicating that their pages are difficult to navigate for disabled people.

A report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that almost a third of the most popular federal websites failed an automated web accessibility test for their homepages, and almost half failed the test on at least one of their three most popular pages. As government services increasingly shift online, these shortfalls suggest many agencies have more work to do to make their sites more accessible.

“What we found in our results was pretty similar to what [ITIF] has found in previous accessibility assessments of government websites, which is that there’s a very wide variety,” said Ashley Johnson, policy analyst at ITIF and co-author of the report. “Some agency websites are very accessible, with no to very few errors or potential boundaries to accessibility, and some are much less accessible.”

ITIF scanned 72 websites, looking for audio and visual content that would create difficulty for disabled people. The results showed lots of variation in how agencies meet standards set by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal agencies to make their electric and information technology accessible to disabled people.

Current Section 508 standards require agencies to meet the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), published in 2008. These guidelines lay out three levels of conformance to web accessibility standards: A, AA and AAA. As of 2018, agencies must reach Level A and Level AA for compliance.

The agencies that failed ITIF’s test are meeting federal requirements at a bare minimum level.

“None of [the websites], I don’t think, would be completely impossible for most users with disabilities to navigate,” Johnson said. “Some would just be a lot more difficult and confusing than others.”

The Internal Revenue Service, Census Bureau, and Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, for example, all landed failing scores, based on ITIF’s metrics. These poor performances, Johnson said, are attributable to a lack of regular accessibility testing.

“Where some of the websites mostly went wrong was perhaps not testing how easy it was to navigate their websites for users that can’t see a screen or for users that can’t see the full range of colors,” Johnson said.

Additionally, 16 of the 72 agencies ITIF examined featured no page or contact forms to report accessibility problems, and eight agencies included an accessibility page that was not easily discoverable.

But other agencies — including the Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior and Department of Veterans Affairs — passed the test with flying colors. The White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even landed perfect scores.

DHS’ strong performance can be attributed to the agency’s Office of Accessible Systems and Technology, which features a testing lab to ensure its websites adhere to accessibility standards. Within the department, only the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement fell short of passing all three tests.

This unique office in DHS — something no other agency features — can serve as a model for others, ITIF suggested.

“This office that [DHS] created for accessible systems and technology sits between both the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the CIO’s office, so they’re really kind of at this intersection of thinking about technology, but also thinking about how this impacts people,” said Daniel Castro, ITIF’s vice president and co-author of the report.

The White House’s perfect score, on the other hand, traces back to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to upholding WCAG 2.1 standards — a notch above today’s Section 508 guidelines.

But accountability for upholding Section 508 standards falls on a range of different federal players, from the Justice Department to agencies themselves. DOJ, which submits a report on Section 508 compliance to Congress and the president every two years, hasn’t publicly released its evaluations since 2012.

This lack of transparency has raised concerns about tracking accessibility progress over time and holding agencies accountable.

“Outside of independent assessments like ours, the public — and that includes disability advocates and accessibility experts — have no way of tracking agency’s progress,” Johnson said. “They also have no way of knowing which agencies are doing a good job that we can use as a positive example.”

In the report, ITIF issued a number of recommendations to remedy these website flaws. Suggestions include the General Services Administration designing a federal accessibility lab, the White House launching a series of “sprints” to fix known issues and Congress requiring DOJ to make its reports publicly available.

“The website accessibility sprints we recommend the White House put on for federal agencies would have the potential to fix a lot of the easily identifiable accessibility issues with government websites,” Johnson said. “And then many of our other recommendations would sort of fill in the gaps after that.”

Artificial intelligence has a role to play in web accessibility, too, especially as government services continue to shift toward digital environments. ITIF is urging the federal government to include accessibility in its ongoing modernization efforts.

“The trend we’re seeing in this space — it’s toward these content management systems where the web interface is just one of many channels that the information could be delivered over,” Castro said. “We want to make sure we don’t build that future where accessibility isn’t already baked into how government’s thinking about delivering online services.”

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