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There is a transparency problem in Federal agencies when it comes to Section 508 compliance.

It’s not that agencies are blatantly ignoring the Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 passed by Congress 24 years ago to ensure federal technology is accessible to people with disabilities.

It is the lack of transparency – specifically the lack of any discussion, data, evidence or reporting on progress that is causing concern among Capitol Hill lawmakers and experts.

The Biden administration’s push for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEI&A) across federal agencies rings hollow, unless agencies do more to show accountability on how they plan to meet Section 508 compliance.

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

A group of bipartisan Senate lawmakers led by Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa) are pressing the Justice Department and Veteran Affairs, along with other federal agencies, to improve the accessibility of their online services.

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. The Act 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 that he has led to ensure effective federal oversight and enforcement of the mandated Section 508 requirements.

Popular federal websites are riddled with accessibility flaws

A report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that almost a third of the most popular federal websites failed an automated web accessibility test for their homepages.

ITIF scanned 72 websites, looking for audio and visual content that would create difficulty for disabled people.

Nearly half of the most popular federal agency websites — including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Marine Corps and Energy Information Administration — failed the accessibility test. This indicates that their pages are difficult to navigate for disabled people.

Additionally, 16 of the 72 agencies ITIF examined featured no page or contact forms to report accessibility problems, and eight agencies included an accessibility page that was not easily discoverable.

As government services increasingly shift online, these shortfalls suggest many agencies have more work to do to make their sites more accessible.

But other agencies — including the Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior and Department of Veterans Affairs — passed the test with flying colors. The White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even landed perfect scores.

The Department of Homeland Security’ strong performance can be attributed to the agency’s Office of Accessible Systems and Technology, which features a testing lab to ensure its websites adhere to accessibility standards.

The White House’s perfect score, on the other hand, traces back to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to upholding WCAG 2.1 standards — a notch above today’s Section 508 guidelines.

Section 508 compliance among federal agencies is mixed

Accountability among federal agencies for upholding Section 508 standards is mixed.

The DOJ, which submits a report on Section 508 compliance to Congress and the president every two years, hasn’t publicly released its evaluations since 2012.

This lack of transparency has raised concerns about tracking accessibility progress over time and holding agencies accountable.

Section 508 requires agencies eliminate potential barriers in electronic and information technology to people with disabilities.

A survey found lack of resources, awareness and training were the most common challenges in complying with Section 508.

Among its recommendations, the Department of Justice said agencies should provide Section 508 training to its staff, develop procurement policies in line with Section 508 and regularly test products and websites for compliance.

Expanding government-wide efforts to improve accessibility at federal agencies

The General Services Administration (GSA) continues to be at the center of ensuring agencies have the tools and knowledge to meet and exceed 508 standards through its Office of Government wide Policy and Federal Acquisition Service.

According to Andrew Nielsen, Director of Government wide IT Accessibility Program, there are several ongoing initiatives to help agencies meet 508 requirements including a new tool called open accessibility conformance report (ACR).

The first initiative involves an ACR repository to make it even easier for agencies to find and use this information to ensure the products they buy meet or exceed the 508 standards.

A second initiative is to update their accessibility requirements tool for procurements. This will enable publication of the requirements on open source repository so others can customize it or bring it behind a firewall to use on classified systems.

Improving testing consistency

In addition to those two acquisition focused tools, GSA and the U.S. Access Board developed an information communications and technology baseline for websites to reduce testing ambiguity and increase consistency of results.

According to Dan Pomeroy, the deputy associate administrator in the Office of Information Integrity and Access ongoing efforts to create an accessibility policy framework is underway.

This framework helps agencies with assessing accessibility policies across the functions like finance or procurement.

How codemantra helps Federal Agencies Achieve Compliance?

codemantra has worked with several state agencies in California (Department of Technology, Department of Consumer Affairs, Public Employment Relations Board) to help them achieve compliance as per ADA, WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines and Section 508 compliance within a short turnaround time.

Our product, accessibilityInsight helps to remediate digital documents in various formats (PDF, Word, Excel, PPT, forms, etc.) for disabled constituents with visual impairments at scale.

For more information on ADA compliance, email us at: engage@codemantra.com.

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