Accessibility of Government Websites Often Fall Short

Elizabeth Ganga,
January 20, 2015

Websites are the portal to government, providing information as basic as the day for garbage pickup and services like paying taxes.

But for people with visual impairments or a host of other disabilities that can affect their use of computers or mobile devices, it’s still hit-or-miss what they will find when they open the website of their local government, school district or library.

People with visual impairments sometimes use screen readers programs that read aloud the text on the screen to navigate the Web, and they find many websites are not designed with them in mind.

“Among the most basic forms of access for people with disabilities is websites,” said George Hoehmann, the executive director of the Rockland Independent Living Center.

Some of the common problems include the use of PDFs and photos that are invisible to screen readers and therefore inaccessible to many blind people, and videos without captions, making them unusable for deaf people. Governments are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act to make their sites accessible but advocates say a large percentage of government sites aren’t meeting the basic standards even though the fixes are relatively easy and cheap.

Much of the problem stems from a lack of awareness among government personnel. And, as with the decades of advocacy to remove physical barriers to access, sometimes they need to be pushed.

“It can be so frustrating because if things are designed to be accessible, it opens up employment opportunities, actions to be involved in community life, shopping independence,” said Meghan Schoeffling, who worked with Westchester Disabled on the Move in Yonkers until recently when she moved to Albany to join the staff of the New York Association on Independent Living.

Schoeffling, a policy analyst, uses screen reading software to access the Web. As long as websites are designed properly, they can be totally accessible to blind people, she said.

“When they’re not designed with best practices, it can be a real impediment,” she said.

The Rockland Independent Living Center has been working on an initiative for about two years to improve the accessibility of local government websites. A staff member, Kenneth Chi, has been testing the sites and the center has been working with the towns and the county to make improvements.

Still, about 60 percent of the sites are deficient, Hoehmann said. In Ramapo, for instance, the schedule for the ice skating rink, featured on the front of its parks and recreation page, is an unreadable PDF. Photos on the site were not tagged so readers could describe what they show, a problem that also occurred in Haverstraw and Stony Point, Hoehmann said.

“If you want to know when recycling pickup is on your street, you can’t read the schedule,” Hoehmann said. On one website they looked at, the town budget came up blank.

Some websites designed with blind people in mind, on the other hand, are set up to allow easy changes to colors, contrast and font size. The links spell out what they are for, they put information in text and Word files and the sites have other features to make them easy to navigate. Some have a button to bring up a text version of the site, dropping the graphics. Sites also need to support alternative commands for people with dexterity problems.

The Westchester Library System has long been sensitive to website accessibility, but has been much more consistent in the implementation over the last three years since it brought its site management in house, said Executive Director Terry Kirchner. It’s part of its mission of serving everyone, he said.

“We really want to include accessibility in everything that we do,” he said.

While governments are required to provide accessibility, the legal standard for commercial sites is still being worked out in the courts. But the federal government has been taking a more aggressive approach to large retailers and some courts are finding that commercial websites are “public accommodations” that must provide equal access. The Justice Department is working on a set of standards for both public and private websites that are expected to be finalized some time this year. In the meantime, designers often rely on guidelines developed for federal government websites or those written by the World Wide Web Consortium.

With the input of the Independent Living Center, Rockland County has improved its site and the town of Clarkstown, where Hoehmann serves on the council, has also made progress, he said. The Independent Living Center also plans to look at the village and school district sites.

“I want to make sure people in their 80s and 90s have the same experience as in their 20s and 30s,” said Scott Salotto, the spokesman for Rockland County, who has worked on many of the site improvements there.

In Westchester, Chi found that Mount Vernon, White Plains, Yonkers and Greenburgh all had good accessibility. The Westchester County site has also improved significantly, advocates said.

Even so, Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner acknowledged not having thought about many of the potential issues. Some of the site’s accessibility may be by accident.

“It’s a very unslick website,” he said.

But as he works to revamp it this year, Feiner said he’d be happy to have input from the disabled community.

Twitter: @eganga

Kenneth Chi, 35, who is visually impaired, comes acrossBuy Photo
Kenneth Chi, 35, who is visually impaired, comes across a problematic document while reviewing government websites for Americans with Disabilities Act at the Rockland Independent Living Center on Jan. 13 in New City. The center is raising the alarm on websites that aren’t accessible, especially to people with visual impairments.(Photo: Tania Savayan/The Journal News)

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