How State and Local Government can enhance constituent engagement with accessible digital content

A neural network map of the human brain.

Best practices for fostering community relationships through accessible digital interaction with citizens

Introduction

Digitally accessible engagement tools can help strengthen bonds between government and citizens and is the aim of federal and state agencies going forward.

A survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government (CDG) among local government agencies found that more than 50% of respondents said accessible communication tools like captions during virtual events and social media increased public participation and interaction over the past year.

However, state and local government leaders need effective digital strategies to guide their efforts. Government agencies can use accessible digital tools to secure a future in which municipalities can engage with their citizens better and provide an accessible experience for those with disabilities.

In this blog, we will take a look at accessibility laws, accessible features for state and local government websites, voluntary action plan for accessible websites, and strategies to guide their digital accessibility efforts.

Accessibility Laws

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if the government entities receive Federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, generally require that State and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities, unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden. One way to help meet these requirements is to ensure that government websites have accessible features for people with disabilities. An agency with an inaccessible website may also meet its legal obligations by providing an alternative accessible way for citizens to use the programs or services, such as a staffed telephone information line. These alternatives, however, are unlikely to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available. For example, job announcements and application forms, if posted on an accessible website, would be available to people with disabilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act) was signed in 1990 to prohibit disability-based discrimination against mental and physical medical conditions. ADA legislation mandates reasonable accommodations in the realm of employment, public entities (i.e. local and state government), public accommodations, and telecommunications. While the ADA mandates accessibility for disabled people broadly, it has come to encompass web accessibility.

Section 508

Section 508 is a 1998 amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, designed to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 technical standards apply to software and operating systems, intranet and internets, computers, and other technology products used by federal agencies. As of January 2018, Section 508 requires federal agencies to adhere to WCAG 2.0 standards.

WCAG

WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) was developed with the goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally. WCAG 2.0 was published on 11 December 2008, requiring web content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, to accommodate users with visual, hearing, mobility, cognitive, and language needs. In 2018, WCAG 2.1 was published, covering an even wider range of recommendations for making web content more accessible.

Accessible features for state and local government websites

  • Alt text for Images

All images and graphics need to have an alt tag or long description. Use alt tags for image maps and for graphics associated with the image map so that a person using a screen reader will have access to the links and information.

Some photos and images contain content that cannot be described with the limited text of an alt tag. Using a long description tag provides a way to have as much text as necessary to explain the image so it is accessible to a person using a screen reader but not visible on the web page.

  • Navigation links

When navigation links are used, people who use a screen reader must listen to all the links before proceeding. A skip navigation link provides a way to bypass the row of navigation links by jumping to the start of the web page content.

Text links do not require any additional information or description if the text clearly indicates what the link is supposed to do. Links such as “click here” may confuse a user.

  • Table headers

When tables with header and row identifiers are used to display information or data, the header and row information should be associated with each data cell by using HTML so a person using a screen reader can understand the information

  • Captions

Video typically has spoken information in the audio track and visual information in the video track. Any information that is only provided audibly or visually will not be accessible to people who can’t hear or see.

  • Provide captions. Captions make audible content accessible to people who can’t hear, and more comprehensible to everyone.
  • Put the content in the words. Consider how to convey concepts in a way that will be understood by people who can’t see. For example, a video of a presentation will be more accessible if the speaker describes the content of the slides.
  • Use audio description. When essential visual information is not described in the video, one approach is to provide narrative describing visual information.
  • Provide a media transcript. A text-based alternative includes a running description of all visual information, including descriptions of scene changes and the actions and expressions of actors, as well as a transcript of all non-speech sound and spoken dialogue.
  • Forms

Online forms are common. People with disabilities who use screen readers are not able to interact with online forms if they are inaccessible. They are at a disadvantage when it comes to filling out a job application or applying for benefits. Because these forms are such a big part of interacting with the web, it’s crucial to provide everyone with equal access.

Provide properly labeled fields, simple navigation, logical organization, keyboard accessibility, user feedback about errors, and successful completion of the form.

Voluntary Action Plan for Accessible Websites

  • Establish a policy that your web pages will be accessible and create a process for implementation.
  • Ensure that all new and modified web pages and content are accessible. Make sure that accessible elements are used, including alt tags, long descriptions, and captions, as needed.
  • If images are used, including photos, graphics, scanned images, or image maps, make sure to include alt tags and/or long descriptions for each.
  • If you use online forms and tables, make those elements accessible.
  • Develop a plan for making your existing web content more accessible. Describe your plan on an accessible web page. Encourage input on improvements, including which pages should be given high priority for change. Let citizens know about the standards or guidelines that are being used. Consider making the more popular web pages a priority.
  • Ensure that in-house staff and contractors responsible for web page and content development are properly trained.
  • Provide a way for visitors to request accessible information or services by posting a telephone number or E-mail address on your home page.
  • Establish procedures to assure a quick response to users with disabilities who are trying to obtain information or services in this way.
  • Periodically enlist disability groups to test your pages for ease of use; use this information to increase accessibility.

Strategies to guide the digital accessibility efforts of state and local governments

1. Drive community through integrated solutions

State and local governments often use digital tools during isolated moments of contact with their constituents, such as making a payment or enrolling in a program. By integrating accessible digital engagement tools such as accessible online surveys or virtual conference events with captions, with other systems and applications, governments can improve user experience.

2. Use data to improve user experience

When trying new accessible engagement methods, government leaders should embrace opportunities to collect feedback from citizens. Integrating this data into easy-to-read dashboards tailored to a department’s mission or goals also gives leaders information on how a solution or engagement channel is performing.

This information can give agencies insight into the success of their public engagement strategies. Through detailed reporting, government leaders can quickly identify operational and strategic wins and losses.

3. Government leaders should adopt an entrepreneurial spirit when implementing engagement tools.

Educating staff on constituent engagement trends and best practices — through classes, white papers, webinars and other training — can help organizations move in the right direction. Agencies can also bring in experts to share actionable insights and help them deploy digital engagement tools thoughtfully.

4. Engage residents together

Effective digital engagement strategies that promote accessibility bring citizens together and promote a sense of community. The goal is to engage residents to understand and serve them better — and engagement strategies must consider all residents, including people with disabilities.

Digital files in various formats, including PDFs, Word, PPT, etc., have to meet federal accessibility standards like ADA, Section 508, and WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines. The ever-increasing need to meet accessibility requirements and compliance mandates the presence of a robust, scalable solution.

codemantra’s accessibilityInsight™, is designed to assist state and local government agencies with their federal government mandated 508 compliance requirements. The AI-powered platform can help reduce the amount of time needed to attain 508 compliance and WCAG AA standards.

The multi-phase document accessibility program involves:

  1. Assess: Complete compliance assessment and detailed reporting.
  2. Plan: Prioritization of assets and determination of internal, external, or hybrid remediation approach.
  3. Document processing: Machine-learning and AI-assisted processing merged with human-assisted review and alt text writing.
  4. Report: Confirm PDF U/A and WCAG compliance and generate a compliance report.

Conclusion

The goal is to engage citizens to serve them better. Governments must consider accessible engagement strategies to include people with disabilities, not just the able-bodied citizens. Ideally, the implementation of accessible digital interactions facilitates better communication between constituents and government, and among citizens themselves.

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