Federal Government Website Accessibility – Still a Long Way to Go

Dr. Jonathan Lazar,
Professor of Computer and Information Sciences; Director, Undergraduate Program in Information Systems; Director, Universal Usability Laboratory, Towson University

Website accessibility is conceptually different from a lot of other types of compliance for people with disabilities, even other technology compliance.

For example, if you design doorways or bathrooms to be accessible for people with disabilities, once they are designed, evaluated and meet the proper regulations, you rarely need to re-check them for compliance. The doorframes don’t change on a monthly basis. Once accessible, they are accessible until they are structurally
altered (or regulations for accessibility are changed).

For some types of technology, this scenario is also true. When you go through the procurement process, you make sure that your copier machine purchase is compliant with
Section 508. Once purchased, you don’t need to check the machine on a weekly basis – it doesn’t change. However, that’s the challenge with websites – they are structurally changed on a daily basis. So techniques used in procurement to ensure that only accessible technology is acquired, generally aren’t effective with websites, because they must be monitored on an ongoing basis.

The General Services Administration (GSA) has made great progress with procuring accessible technology, but this hasn’t yet improved website accessibility.

I recently published an article in Government Information Quarterly with my doctoral student, Abiodun Olalere, documenting that website inaccessibility is a major problem within federal government homepages. The low level of website accessibility within the federal government is really a multi-dimensional
problem. Some potential reasons why website accessibility continues to be a problem include:

list of 5 items

  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) has the responsibility to evaluate Section 508 compliance, but through most of the last decade, has neglected to do so.
  • While some agencies have full-time Section 508 coordinators, at other agencies, those responsibilities are simply “tacked on” to someone who already has full-time job responsibilities, without further resources or time to coordinate Section 508 compliance within the agency.
  • While the regulations provide clarity on what features make a website accessible, there isn’t clear guidance on the management and maintenance processes to keep a website accessible.
  • Agencies are not required to document or report on an ongoing basis what they do to ensure accessibility on their Web pages. The Open Government Directive (issued on December 8, 2009) did not specifically mention accessibility, and there has been no public activity in the open government area related to website accessibility. Website accessibility needs to be a key component of open government. If e-government isn’t open to everyone, it’s not really open government.
  • There isn’t one clear person or agency responsible for accessibility. The five major players at this time are DOJ, the
    U.S. Access Board, GSA, the CIO Council Accessibility Committee and Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy
    Kareem Dale. They each have different roles, and since the beginning of 2010, all of them have been more active in this policy area, discussing the problem of federal website accessibility.

So there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to move towards more accessible federal government websites.

Universities are equally to blame – most universities, in their courses on interface design, Web design or human-computer interaction, do not teach the basic concepts of accessibility. Accessibility is not a core part of national curriculum models in computer science, information systems or information technology. Most students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in a computing field have never heard about accessibility – and that’s a problem.

As educators and teachers, we need to do a better job teaching our students about accessibility. I am the director of the Information Systems undergraduate program at Towson University, and I can guarantee you that everyone who completes our degree program is familiar with accessibility concepts.

So how do we solve the problem of website accessibility? First, we need ongoing evaluation of the accessibility of federal websites. The key methods for evaluation are: 

  • 1. Usability testing involving people with disabilities;
  • 2. Expert reviews, where accessibility experts inspect Web pages (sometimes known as a “manual inspection”); and
  • 3. Automated testing, where software tools spider websites looking for accessibility problems.

All three approaches are useful, and must be done on an ongoing basis. But just testing and fixing websites after they are implemented is not enough, because accessibility is easy to integrate into the initial site design, yet harder to go back and retro-fit. So a discussion of accessibility must take place as soon as there is an idea that a new site will be developed, or as soon as there is an idea that a site re-design will occur. Accessibility is hard to
do after-the-fact but is easy to do when incorporated as a key design goal early in the development process. So, you must build a website to be accessible, and then you must keep it accessible by having ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the accessibility of the website.

Let me be clear about something: the solutions, the knowledge and the expertise to solve federal website accessibility already exist within the federal government. There are many federal employees with extensive knowledge in the areas of usability and accessibility, who are striving towards excellence in 508 compliance on a daily basis. Among the stories of problems, you rarely hear about the best practices. However, there are some agencies and some
websites that have excellent accessibility maintenance processes.

For instance, at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they use a content management system (CMS). Before employees can get an account on the CMS, they must sign paperwork agreeing to only post accessible
content on the agency’s website. If FDA employees post inaccessible content multiple times, they can lose their CMS account.

For Recovery.gov (managed by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board), all content is reviewed for accessibility before being posted, including all PDF files.

At the U.S. Census Bureau, 90 percent of their websites are checked monthly for accessibility, using an automated software tool.

For all three of these websites, users with disabilities regularly perform usability testing. These are the types of ongoing evaluations that are likely to lead to a website that remains accessible over time. Other management approaches can be helpful, as well. For instance, the Department of Health and Human Services includes Section 508 compliance in the performance evaluations of their Senior Executive Service. The CIO Council Accessibility Committee
has recently created a Best Practices Library at http://www.cio.gov/module.cfm/node/bpl,
and I encourage Section 508 coordinators to submit their best practices for inclusion.

There ARE federal agencies and departments that are doing an excellent job with accessibility. But their approaches need to be distributed and replicated throughout the government. I am thrilled that 2010 and 2011 (so far) have been active years in discussing Web accessibility. We need to keep discussing Web accessibility, keep highlighting problems, keep training people, and keep sharing the best practices, so that we can steadily improve website accessibility
within the federal government.

Dr. Lazar is involved in teaching and research in the area of human-computer interaction – specifically, Web usability, Web accessibility, user-centered design methods, assistive technology and public policy in the area of human-computer interaction. He has published five books, including “Research Methods
in Human-Computer Interaction” (2010, John Wiley and Sons), “Universal Usability: Designing Computer Interfaces for Diverse User Populations” (2007, John
Wiley and Sons) and “Web Usability: A User-Centered Design Approach” (2006, Addison-Wesley). He serves on the editorial boards of Interacting with Computers, Universal Access in the Information Society and ACM Interactions Magazine, and serves on the executive board of the Friends of the Maryland Library for
the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Dr. Lazar was named a winner of the 2011 University System of Maryland Regents Award for Public Service.

Posted by Stephanie B on Jun 29, 2011 9:10:26

Reproduced from http://blog.govdelivery.com/usodep/2011/06/federal-government-website-accessibility-still-a-long-way-to-go-.html