Many of the federal government’s websites and online services still fail to meet accessibility requirements mandated by law, and public oversight of federal agencies’ adherence to compliance standards has gone dormant for almost a decade, according to witnesses and lawmakers at a Senate Aging Committee hearing on Thursday.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended in 1998, requires that the federal government make its information technology services, including online websites, accessible to Americans living with disabilities. While the mandate also requires that the Department of Justice publicly report to the president and Congress on a biennial basis about federal agencies’ compliance with accessibility standards, Chairman Bob Casey, D-Pa., said during the hearing that the report “hasn’t been completed in the past 10 years.”
Growing concern about DOJ’s lack of compliance with Section 508 comes after a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation last year found that 30% of the homepages for the federal government’s most popular websites did not pass an automated accessibility test. The same report found that 48% of the most popular sites failed an accessibility test on at least one of their top three most popular pages.
For the 61 million adult Americans currently living with a disability, the lack of fully accessible federal websites and online services limits access to needed health information, benefits and other resources. And the lack of information about federal agencies’ compliance with accessibility standards only makes it more difficult for lawmakers and the general public to gain an accurate understanding of the steps being taken to rectify these technical deficiencies.
Eve Hill, a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP and the deputy assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division from 2011 to 2017, told the committee that a federal agency should be tasked with enforcing compliance with Section 508. Hill drew a parallel to the creation of the U.S. Access Board to help ensure that people with disabilities had access to federally-funded facilities, as was required by the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968.
“Transparency is really important in this field because, without it, agencies are tempted to not comply and wait to see if they get caught by someone who encounters a barrier,” Hill said. “This transparency encourages agencies to take accessibility seriously at the beginning of a technology purchase when it’s easy and inexpensive to do, rather than wait and have to do fixes that are expensive and time consuming.”
Disability rights advocates told the committee that the federal government can already take steps to rectify this problem, such as prioritizing accessibility during the initial stages of designing and implementing new websites and technologies.
Anil Lewis, executive director for blindness initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind, said that the tools already exist for federal websites to make their online services more accessible for disabled Americans, but it’s “about the efficient and ethical implementation of these strategies.”
By pushing the federal government to require accessibility from its vendors and contractors, Lewis said federal websites would be more beneficial and less costly when accessibility issues are inevitably discovered.
“If we focus on doing it during that development and design process, we can make it accessible,” Lewis added.
As an initial step toward making all federal websites truly accessible, Casey said that DOJ should begin to once again publicly issue Section 508 reports, which would “provide taxpayers with an important status update” about efforts to make federal websites, technology and services truly accessible for all Americans. And he added that “Congress needs to take a close look at Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to see if changes are needed.”
Last month, Casey and a bipartisan group of six senators sent a letter to DOJ that asked the agency to explain why it stopped issuing Section 508 reports and discuss its collection of Section 508 compliance data. Casey and committee ranking member Tim Scott, R-S.C., also joined top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees in a letter to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs last month that asked it to improve the agency’s online accessibility for disabled veterans.