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Introduction

Senate lawmakers are pressing the Justice Department and Veteran Affairs, along with other federal agencies, to improve the accessibility of their online services.

Accessibility is important to a broad swath of taxpayers who rely every day on information and services provided by the federal government.

About 61 million American adults or 26% population, live with a disability and disabilities are more common among individuals over the age of 65.

Therefore, Section 508 compliance is critical to ensuring a sizable share of the American public, including individuals with disabilities and seniors, can access government information and technology.

Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies to make their ICT such as technology, online training and websites accessible for everyone.

This means that federal employees with disabilities are able to do their work on the accessible computers, phones and equipment in their offices, take online training or access the agency’s internal website to locate needed information.

Section 508 also means that a person with a disability applying for a job with the federal government or a person who is using an agency’s website to get information about a program, or completing an online form has access to the same accessible information and resources available to anyone.

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is any equipment or system that is used to create, convert, duplicate or access information and data. Examples of ICT include, but are not limited to:

  • Internet and Intranet websites
  • PDF documents
  • Remote access websites and tools
  • Software and operating systems
  • User guides for software and tools

The Department of Veteran Affairs Website Accessibility Act of 2019

The Act requires the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to conduct a study on the accessibility of websites of the Department of Veterans Affairs to determine whether such websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities, in accordance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Act requires the Secretary to unveil a plan to bring the website into compliance with the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Website includes a file attached to a website, a web-based application, or a kiosk at a medical facility of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the use of which is required to check in for scheduled appointments.

The report must also include a description of the barriers to bringing the website into compliance with the requirements of Section 508, including any barriers relating to vacant positions at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Source: Congress.Gov

State of accessibility in the Department of Veteran Affairs

  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that about 8.7% of federal workers reported they had disabilities in 2014, the number increasing to 9.4% in 2018.
  • Another study found only 8% of VA’s internet sites and 6% of its intranet sites are fully compliant with Section 508.

Source: Federal News Network

State of accessibility in Federal agencies

  • A 2021 report found that the homepages for 30 percent of the most popular federal websites were not fully accessible.
  • Nearly half of those sites (48 percent) failed an accessibility test on at least one of their three most popular sub-pages.
  • Further, one-third of popular federal websites lacked easily discoverable contact information to report accessibility issues.

Source: United States Senate Special Committee on Aging

Bipartisan Senate Special Committee on Aging Urges Examination of Lack of Web Accessibility across Federal Government

The U.S. Senate Special Committee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) led bipartisan oversight letters to the Department of Veteran Affairs and Department of Justice calling for more accessible websites and technology.

Chairman Casey’s letter requested the U.S. Government Accountability office (GAO) to investigate federal government’s compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which mandates that government make its electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.

Chairman Casey was joined by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee; Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Ranking Member of the Senate Health; and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Mike Braun (R-IN), both members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

The letter to the GAO is the latest in a series of bipartisan efforts he has led to ensure effective federal oversight and enforcement of the mandated Section 508 requirements.

The Chairman recently led a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), urging the agency to improve VA web accessibility for disabled veterans, and to the Department of Justice (DOJ), demanding long-overdue information on web accessibility across the federal government.

He called on DOJ to restart the government-wide reports evaluating the accessibility of federal technology. These reports have not been issued since 2012, despite a requirement in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that they be completed every two years.

Below is a timeline of Chairman Casey’s work on the issue of federal government web accessibility:  

  • March 2020: Senator Casey introduced the bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act alongside Senator Moran and Representative Luria.
  • December 2020: Senator Casey’s Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act became law.
  • January 2021: Senator Casey sent a letter to then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to confirm the VA was taking steps to implement the VA Website Accessibility Act.
  • April 2021: Senator Casey sent a letter following up on concerns on VA website accessibility with VA Secretary McDonough. 
  • September 2021: VA transmitted a report to Congress regarding Section 508 compliance. 
  • March 2022: Senator Casey received responses from VA to questions from his April 2021 letter.
  • June 2022: Senator Casey led a bipartisan group of committee leaders urging the Veteran Affairs agency to improve website accessibility for disabled veterans.
  • June 2022: Senator Casey led a bipartisan group of Senators in sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding information on web accessibility across the federal government.
  • July 2022: Senator Casey held a hearing in the Special Committee on Aging examining the challenges facing seniors and people with disabilities when accessing crucial online resources from the federal government. The hearing examined why barriers to web access remain, and the steps taken by federal government agencies to meet accessibility standards.

Source: United States Senate Special Committee on Aging

Lack of public reporting and accountability in federal agencies

Both legal requirements and government-wide guidance require departments and agencies to conduct certain types of accessibility oversight and enforcement.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is required by law to submit a report to the President and Congress every two years with information and recommendations on Section 508 compliance.

However, DOJ has not issued these statutorily required biennial reports since 2012, a concern raised by the Special Committee in a bipartisan letter to the Attorney General.

The Office of Management and Budget requires 24 agencies to assess and report their compliance with Section 508’s standards twice a year. But the information collected through this process is not made public.

The lack of public reporting and accountability leaves Congress and taxpayers without adequate information about the rate of compliance with disability access requirements across government websites and other information technology.

Source: United States Senate Special Committee on Aging

How codemantra helps Federal Agencies achieve compliance with Section 508 compliance requirements?

codemantra is a leading Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) Solutions Provider. Its AI-driven platform automates digital document accessibility compliance; captures, classifies, and extracts data; and transforms documents into any output format.

codemantra’s accessiblityInsight™ platform provides end-to-end accessibility compliance for web content thereby assisting federal government agencies with their Section 508 compliance requirements.

Some of the benefits of our robust compliance solution are:

  • 100% accuracy
  • 100 percent accessible output compliant with ADA, 508, and WCAG standards
  • Lowest pricing when compared to other competitors
  • Significant reduction in overhead and audit-related costs
  • Marked increase in productivity of employees with print disabilities

Final Thoughts

The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging has urged the Department of Justice and Veteran Affairs to improve access to federal technology and services.

The agencies need to take steps to ensure they have robust public reporting and accountability practices in place to ensure they comply with accessibility requirements across government websites.

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