Digital Accessibility As A Self-Evident Right: How US Federal Government Agencies Can Improve Digital Services
The Federal government of the United States was founded on a set of key principles. While there have been amendments and additions to these principles throughout history, it can still be said that three foundational principles are unwavering: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Monumental, persistent efforts are needed to ensure that these core principles apply to all of the country’s citizens. It is incredibly important for all agencies to foster and exhibit these principles while upholding the standards set forth in legislative acts.
In this blog, we’ll explore the significance of digital accessibility for federal government agencies, outline the requirements set forth by Section 508, Section 752, and Section 504 to ensure compliance and inclusivity, address challenges with reducing digital accessibility technical debt, identify ways to simplify reporting requirements, and focus on budgeting to improve digital accessibility.
With the End of the Reporting Cycle, Remediation Begins
Major movements have taken place in recent decades to ensure the fundamental services that federal government agencies provide are more accessible and inclusive for all citizens. In today’s digital age, these agencies must meet many standards and requirements to integrate digital accessibility into their services in today’s digital age, but it is evident that there are still major challenges for many agencies aiming to meet the compliance requirements for digital accessibility.
Accessibility and digital accessibility are not just courtesies but foundational rights for all individuals. Agencies that strive to provide inclusive services must prioritize digital accessibility to ensure equal opportunities for all citizens including access to information and communication technologies.
With the recent updates for federal agencies reporting requirements related to their digital accessibility for Section 508 and Section 752 – the latter section having been enacted to more strictly enforce the former’s historically under-enforced digital accessibility compliance requirements – many agencies have faced challenges with the complexities of providing comprehensive reporting in response to the 105-item questionnaire issued by the Government Services Administration (GSA). In addition to adjusting to these reporting requirements, the priority now needs to shift to showing reductions in the reported digital accessibility issues.
The Importance of Digital Accessibility for Federal Agencies
Digital accessibility encompasses the design and development of websites, software, digital applications, platforms and content in a way that enables all individuals, including those with disabilities, to perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the information provided. Below are a few important reasons why federal government agencies need to fully prioritize digital accessibility:
Maintaining Compliance and Legal Protection: Legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) provides protection and regulation for people with disabilities. Meeting digital accessibility compliance requirements provides benefits for federal agencies aiming to avoid costly lawsuits, financial penalties, and reputational damage associated with accessibility issues. More than just being essential, the adherence to the ADA by federal agencies sets an appropriate example for other organizations.
Improved User and Employee Experience: While digital accessibility is often prioritized to provide benefits of equal opportunity and access to individuals with disabilities, it also enhances the experience for all users, both internal and external – in this case, citizens and federal employees. Providing clear navigation, readable content, and intuitive design helps everyone interact with federal websites, platforms, applications and digital services in a more enriching, meaningful, and beneficial way. The changes also have additional benefits such as increased understanding for citizens with lower literacy and for those where English as a second language (ESL)
Fostering Equality and Inclusivity: Federal agencies that ensure digital accessibility foster equal access and inclusivity. This is paramount to provide frictionless access – or access without additional hurdles – to government services, information, and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of their abilities. Inclusivity is essential to maintaining and upholding the principles of democracy and equal opportunity. Delivering on those principles while meeting compliance requirements demonstrates an agency’s commitment to upholding democratic values, inclusivity, and public service.
Section 508: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
For federal government agencies, the primary legal framework governing digital accessibility compliance is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in electronic and information technology. It requires federal agencies to procure, develop, leverage, and maintain accessible technology.
This landmark legislation requires all federal government agencies to provide electronic and information technology in accessible formats to people with disabilities and enhance their overall user experience.
Important elements and provisions of Section 508:
Scope of agencies Section 508 applies to: Section 508 applies to all federal agencies, including those that receive federal funding, when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. It encompasses a wide range of digital assets, such as websites, software, hardware, multimedia, and other electronic content.
Conformance guidelines agencies need to follow: To ensure accessibility, federal agencies must conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 level A and AA, which provide specific guidelines for making web content perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust to ensure digital content is accessible for individuals with disabilities.
Exceptions and reasonable accommodations: While the goal is full accessibility, agencies may claim exceptions when compliance poses an undue burden or could fundamentally alter the nature of the agency’s program. The agency is also bound to provide reasonable accommodation to ensure individuals with disabilities can access the same information or services. While considering accommodations, consider the cost-benefit ratio of recurring accommodations at scale; it is often cheaper to fix the issue with the digital product than it is to run accommodations long term. Therefore, consider accommodations only as short-term gap solutions until you can get the root cause fix implemented.
Documentation and Reporting requirements: Federal agencies must document their efforts towards achieving digital accessibility. This includes providing reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities and ensuring third-party products and services they procure are accessible.
Understanding and identifying areas federal government agencies can improve their compliance and reporting on Section 508 can be challenging and complex. In addition to the requirements in Section 508, more recent requirements in Section 752 also include important considerations for federal government agencies.
Section 752: Digital Accessibility Reporting Requirements
While Section 508 was enacted to ensure digital accessibility in federal agencies, historically its enforcement has not been consistent. A recent report by the Department of Justice indicated that less than 40% of federal government agencies are appropriately abiding by Section 508 requirements.
In order to establish and enforce processes to make agencies more accountable for Section 508 compliance, Section 752 was signed into law in December 2018. Also, recent updates which were signed in December 2022 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 include requirements developed by the General Services Administration (GSA), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the U.S. Access Board (USAB) for agencies to report on their progress and compliance with accessibility standards by submitting a 105-item questionnaire due August 11, 2023.
Important components of Section 752 reporting requirements:
Reporting Timeline: Federal agencies are required to submit a report to Congress annually through a 105-item questionnaire evaluating their progress and efforts towards improving digital accessibility. The most recent reporting deadline is August 11, 2023.
Reporting Contents: The report must include a detailed description of the agency’s accessibility goals, actions taken to achieve those goals, and the current level of digital accessibility in the agency’s electronic content and technology. This means that the agency needs to build into the timeline the ability to run the audits and generate the information needed for the report.
Reporting Accessibility: The report must be made publicly available through the Section 508 Program Maturity Report, allowing users to review the agency’s commitment to digital accessibility and track its progress over time. Because this report is public-facing, keep in mind that the report itself also needs to be conformant to accessibility criteria.
Beyond Section 508 and Section 752
It’s important to highlight that there are other laws and regulations beyond Section 508 and Section 752 that reinforce the importance of digital accessibility compliance for federal government agencies:
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination based on disability in federally conducted programs, including electronic communications.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) extends to the digital realm and is continuously being updated to introduce additional considerations in order to ensure equal access to government services for individuals with disabilities. Recently, the Biden Administrations announced in an ADA Anniversary proclamation that accessibility standards will be established for the web and mobile app-based services for state and local governments. This addresses certain challenges in web and mobile-based services: voter registration, filing taxes, applying for social services, registering for vaccines, getting information on public transit, and taking online courses. Initially focused on state and local governments (Title II of the ADA), there is a potential that these requirements could shift to other Title areas of the ADA.
Addressing Challenges with Accessibility for Federal Agencies
It is essential for federal government agencies to be compliant with digital accessibility requirements and there are many challenges that can be encountered throughout the process of building a sustainable digital accessibility program.
Technological Complexity: It can be both challenging and time-consuming to adapt complex systems, legacy software, and third-party applications to meet accessibility standards.
Awareness and Training: It’s important to identify areas to build awareness, ensure that appropriate personnel are trained, and continuously update comprehensive training programs related to digital accessibility guidelines and best practices.
Budgetary Constraints: Ongoing requirements for digital accessibility can quickly become costly. Allocating resources for accessibility initiatives may be challenging for agencies facing budgetary constraints.
Procurement Issues: Focusing on building and leveraging relationships with third-party vendors that provide accessible products and services can be challenging if not addressed early in the procurement process. Measuring their conformance to your requirements adds significant overhead if not approached at scale.
Steps to Simplify Digital Accessibility Compliance and Reporting
- Run an Accessibility Audit: Identify all digital assets, including websites, applications, digital communications like emails and newsletters, and documents, then audit for any accessibility barriers. We recommend that you prioritize the work by volume of consumers of the content so that you are putting your most used / most visible digital properties at the forefront of your efforts. You can then prioritize remediation efforts based on the issues identified in the audit.
- Provide Training: Train the appropriate employees in your agency involved in digital content creation and digital development on accessibility compliance and best practices. This training should not just be for remediation, but also to build a strong foundational understanding of accessibility best practices so as to not continually contribute technical debt.
- Design and Develop for Accessibility: Adopt digital accessibility guidelines like WCAG 2.1 and include accessibility best practices in both design and development processes. The earlier these best practices are applied, the less overall effort there will be long term. At Deque, we call this shifting-left.
- Involve the Community: Receive input from a wide range of people with disabilities (PwDs) during the design and development process to ensure their needs are considered and integrated into information and communication technologies.
- Implement Accessibility Tools: Leverage accessibility tools and technologies throughout the life cycle to build sustainable digital accessibility programs and processes.
- Build A Strong Homogeneous Program: Ensure that you are orchestrating and monitoring all aspects of your Digital Accessibility Program as an integrated system. This will not only ensure that your program is maintaining peak efficiencies, but more importantly learning from mistakes and missteps will help you optimize the program over time.
- Don’t Forget To Audit: Post-production cross checks, spot checks, etc. are vital parts of a strong program to ensure that conformant digital products remain conformant.
How Deque Can Help
Digital accessibility is a critical aspect of ensuring equal access and opportunities for all citizens. For federal government agencies, adherence to Section 508 and Section 752 reporting requirements, Section 504 and the ADA are both a legal obligation and organizational necessity. Agencies that deliver digitally accessible services, websites, applications and platforms foster inclusivity, enhance user experience, and showcase their commitment to serving all members of the public –regardless of their abilities. Embracing digital accessibility empowers government agencies to build a more inclusive and equitable future.
Deque is the world leader in digital accessibility. With over 20 years of experience, we’ve perfected the art of performing efficient and trusted accessibility audits. Partner with us to:
- Prepare, publish, and implement a comprehensive accessibility plan
- Including accessible feedback processes, procurement, customer service training, and more.
- Continuously report on accessibility plan progress in the required reporting formats
- Avoid having to assemble your own internal team
- Minimize disruption while meeting and maintaining compliance
- Create and set a path toward a sustainable and efficient digital accessibility future.