Congress ordered agencies to use technology that works for people with disabilities 24 years ago. Many still haven’t.
Congress mandated in 1998 a portion of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act known as Section 508, which directs federal agencies to make technology accessible. But nearly a quarter of a century later, they still don’t. And it’s not just about ordering lunch. About 30% of the most popular federal websites do not meet accessibility standards, according to a 2021 report from the Foundation for Information Technology and Innovation. Enforcement is virtually non-existent and agencies spend little effort or money to comply.
“My company’s clients are currently experiencing training required by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that do not work with screen readers for the blind and with Social Security Administration intake kiosks that are not accessible said Eve Hill, a Brown, Goldstein & Levy attorney who testified about the issues before the Senate Committee on Aging last month.
Hill, along with Anil Lewis, executive director of blindness initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind, and Jule Ann Lieberman, assistive technology program coordinator at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities, asked senators to ensure that the federal government respects the Federal Disabilities Act.
Most frustratingly, advocates say, is that making the technology accessible isn’t difficult. It just takes foresight. And that’s important. More than a quarter of Americans have a disability.
For the past 10 years, the DOJ has not made public any of the biennial reports that Congress has mandated on Section 508 compliance. established a compliance plan. Those that did had an average operating budget of $35,000 per year devoted to the task.
In June, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and ranking member Tim Scott (RS.C.), along with other lawmakers, wrote to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
They asked McDonough to provide detailed information about the accessibility of VA websites and plans to bring them into compliance, noting that only 8% of its public sites and even fewer of its intranet sites were compliant with the law. “The lack of fully accessible websites in VA is a potential barrier for one quarter of all veterans with service-related disabilities, and may well be a harbinger of similar shortcomings in other federal agencies and departments” , wrote the senators.
In a letter responding to Casey, McDonough said the VA’s most-used websites have accessibility ratings of 95% or higher. The department now performs daily accessibility scans, he said, to bring other sites into compliance.
In their letter to Garland, the lawmakers questioned why the DOJ hadn’t made its agency compliance reports more public. The department said it was working with the White House Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration to report its data to Congress and the president.
Carlos Montas, a former employee of the Veterans Benefits Administration in Nashville, Tennessee, who is blind, can relate to Othman’s struggles.
When he took a job with the agency in March 2020 that involved calling veterans to explain their benefits, his manager gave him digital audio workstation software and a braille display, which enabled him to to read text on the screen with your fingertips.
But none of these technologies were compatible with most of the software he needed to do his job. He found it impossible to perform simple tasks, such as attaching a document to an email.
He said the VA instituted performance criteria and ultimately fired him for not following through. He filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and returned to his job with back pay. He quit a few months later for a job at the EEOC.
People who are hard of hearing also struggle with federal technology. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, advocates for the National Association of the Deaf said HHS videos lacked proper captioning and were not available in American Sign Language.
In their letter to McDonough, Casey and Scott pointed to the VA’s own data showing that hearing loss is “by far the most prevalent service-related disability.” Hill said people who are deaf or hard of hearing struggle with training and educational videos without subtitles.
The VA, which serves about 9 million veterans a year, is at the center of the problem, according to Casey and Scott. In March, the senators said the department acknowledged that “hundreds of thousands of Section 508 compliance issues remain unresolved.”
But accessibility issues extend to much of the federal government.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC think tank that promotes the use of technology in policy solutions, audited federal websites in 2021. They found that 30% of them, including popular sites like weather.gov, energystar.gov, and census.gov, failed an automated accessibility test and nearly half had web pages that failed the test.
The report recommends that the General Services Administration, which supports the logistical needs of other federal agencies, create an accessibility testing lab to ensure sites are compliant and expand its existing digital analytics program to perform real-time accessibility testing. He also suggested that Congress require the DOJ to make its 508 accessibility reports public.
Eric Egan, a policy researcher with the foundation, said he was unaware of any action taken by the GSA to implement the reports’ recommendations. He said the foundation was encouraged by the oversight of the Senate Committee on Aging.
A GSA spokesperson said the agency collects self-reported data from agencies on their Section 508 compliance, analyzes it, and makes recommendations. The GSA is also involved in an interagency effort to update guidance on Section 508 compliance.
“A flawed process”
Disability advocates say fixing accessibility issues shouldn’t be expensive. In his testimony before the Senate Committee on Aging, Lewis tried to disabuse senators of the idea that accessible technology is expensive. “Accessible coding is just good coding,” he said.
He gave an example. If the federal government created all of its documents on typewriters and then handed them over to a contractor to be digitized, it would be costly and inefficient. Instead of layering outdated technology on top of a newer framework, the government should use technology designed around accessibility from the start, he said.
Some vendors offer such tools, said Sommer Panage, who manages a team of accessibility engineers at Slack, the instant messaging service. She said Slack has long considered the needs of people with disabilities in its product design and recently changed its internal operations to make its software more consistently accessible.
Panage manages an accessibility-focused engineering team and said his team now ensures that people with disabilities can use any new feature before it’s released, while also looking to ensure it will work with accessibility tools. external accessibility.
“There’s a very large matrix of combinations of different operating systems, different screen readers, different screen readers in each operating system, and then Slack itself,” she said. at POLITICO. “What we’re really working on now is thinking about this matrix holistically.”
But disability advocates say the federal government is behind the times. Agencies often don’t test technology for accessibility before implementation, and consequences are rare when government contractors don’t ensure people with disabilities can use their products, said Doug George Towne, president and CEO. of Access Ready, a disability rights organization. “It’s a flawed process,” he said.
Othman said a culture of pinching money makes life more difficult for people with disabilities in his workplace. For example, when his office updated the photocopiers, the agency had the option of paying a little extra for a speech package, which would have made the machines accessible to visually impaired employees. A lever attachment to help employees in wheelchairs lift the copier cover was also available. But the agency opted for neither.
After employees including Othman complained, she said the office bought a few packages instead of rolling out the technology across the office.
President Joe Biden was applauded early in his administration for prioritizing accessibility. An interpreter regularly translated Biden’s speeches into sign language, and the White House provided captions for those watching online. The White House press secretary is always accompanied by a sign language interpreter, and the administration has provided live audio descriptions of White House events for those with visual impairments.
In June 2021, Biden issued an executive order asking agencies to “improve accessibility, ensure accommodations can be requested, increase opportunities for advancement and employment, and reduce physical barriers to employment.” accessibility”.
The Office of Management and Budget already requires 24 agencies to file reports twice a year on the accessibility of their technology infrastructure.
But these reports are not public. This is part of a larger information blackout that Casey and four other senators, Patty Murray (D-wash.), Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), mike brown (R-Ind.) and Richard Burer(RN.C.), drew attention in an Aug. 11 letter to Comptroller General Eugene Dodaro.
The senators asked Dodaro, who heads Congress’ watchdog arm, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate, writing that “lack of public reporting and accountability leaves Congress and taxpayers without adequate information on the rate of compliance.” access requirements for people with disabilities”.