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Senate lawmakers are pushing the departments of Justice and Veterans Affairs, along with all agencies, to improve the accessibility of their online services.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging looked into the accessibility of federal technology, specifically for seniors and individuals with disabilities, as well as older and disabled veterans.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the committee’s chairman, said accessing digital services became a more prevalent concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, after accelerating a long-term shift in delivering government services through virtual, rather than physical, platforms. The acceleration of digital services disproportionately impacted specific groups.
“Digital access significantly affects older Americans and veterans, who experience disabilities at higher rates than the general population and more frequently use these government services,” he said at a July 28 committee hearing.
In an effort to improve digital platforms specifically for veterans, Congress passed legislation in 2020, called the VA Website Accessibility Act, which required the agency to report on the accessibility of its webpages and intake kiosks, both of which help veterans access their health information. But, Casey wrote in a June 6 letter to VA, after the bill was enacted, the agency still had “poor compliance” with providing web accessibility to veterans with disabilities.
“A report required by the VA Website Accessibility Act showed that only 8% of VA’s internet sites and 6% of its intranet sites are fully compliant with Section 508,” Casey wrote.
The letter, which Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) coauthored, stated that VA’s report, required by the VA Website Accessibility Act, did not offer enough information on its plan to fix the websites. The lawmakers called on VA to provide more details, in part, on how it will prioritize fixing accessibility issues for its webpages.
The law requires VA to examine all of its websites to determine if they are accessible to people with disabilities. The agency must also report to Congress which websites aren’t accessible, outline a plan to improve those sites and describe any barriers to implementation.
In the agency’s response to lawmakers concerns over the enactment of the act, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said a small number of VA websites comprise the vast majority of page visits from end users. Notably, 89% of all page views across VA’s website go to just two webpages — the updated VA.gov site and the My HealtheVet platform, with 49% and 32% of VA’s total page views, respectively.
Those two particular webpages received accessibility compliance scores above 95%, McDonough wrote in a July 29 letter to Casey. He said the agency prioritized compliance with section 508 on those particular sites, as well as other webpages with particularly high traffic. The later-added section 508 under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 tasked agencies with ensuring their electronic and information technology is accessible to both federal employees and members of the public who have disabilities.
For other highly-used webpages, VA is working to reduce duplicative online content by migrating information across different medical center websites to an updated VA.gov platform. The agency also plans to limit editors’ access only to the content they need. McDonough added that the agency currently conducts daily scans of highly used webpages, and addresses accessibility issues within 24 hours of a notification.
By September, a Patient Check-In (PCI) tool will be available for veterans to use, McDonough wrote, to address some issues with website usage for veterans with disabilities. For those who have further limitations, McDonough said there are a few different options.
“Veterans with accessibility needs may complete appointment check-ins by seeing a staff member. In addition, veterans without mobile devices can receive assistance from a staff member,” he wrote.
VA’s difficulties in improving its website accessibility, though, are not unique to the agency.
“A long list of agencies and even the White House, have settled lawsuits in recent years alleging their websites and technology are not accessible,” Casey said at the Senate committee hearing.
To try to correct the broader issue, senators called on DOJ to restart reports on accessibility for public-facing federal websites. Despite a requirement for DOJ to report on federal website accessibility every two years, the agency has not released a report in a decade, Casey said. Several senators recently wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, voicing concerns about the lack of reports from the agency.
In 2012, the most recent report on section 508 compliance from the agency, DOJ reported “mixed levels of success” for agencies’ implementation, and recommended increasing training and establishing 508 offices or programs, the senators’ June 30 letter explained.
“Furthermore, the report found that approximately 30% of agency components had policies and procedures for reporting section 508 complaints. It recommended establishing specific procedures and widely distributing information on how to file a complaint,” the lawmakers wrote.
In March, DOJ published new web accessibility guidance for agencies, recommending changes like high color contrast, captioned videos and text alternatives to images, to both improve accessibility and align with President Joe Biden’s executive orders on advancing racial equity and improving diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce.
Federal News Network reached out to DOJ about the senators’ letter and the agency declined to comment.
Website accessibility is becoming more important over time, as more federal services move to digital platforms, the Senate committee said. Within the federal workforce itself, federal employees who report having a disability is also increasing, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found. In fiscal 2014, about 8.7% of federal workers said they had disabilities, and that grew to 9.4% in 2018, the most recent data available from EEOC.
“Federal agencies are raising awareness of accessibility for persons with disabilities and are improving their technological resources to make their workplaces more accessible to people with disabilities,” the commission wrote in a May 19 report.
Overall, 61 million American adults, or 26% of the U.S. population, live with a disability, the committee wrote. But, lawmakers said there is still a long way to go to support accessibility for those individuals on federal websites.
“Federal regulations have not kept up with the technological advancements that we’ve seen in this country,” Scott, the committee’s ranking member, said at the hearing. “We must keep telehealth available and accessible for all Americans, including our seniors, our military heroes and disabled individuals.”