DOJ reports on federal IT accessibility

Federal information technology isn’t as accessible to those with disabilities as it’s required to be, aside (maybe) from web sites

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Last week the U.S. Department of Justice released a new report on Section 508 compliance amongst federal agencies and divisions. What is Section 508, you may ask? Well, it has nothing to do with Area 51, the FBI, or the cone of silence. No, it refers to the Section 508 amendment, enacted in 1998, of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which requires federal agencies (or any organization that receives federal funding) to make electronic and information technologies (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. This means making EIT accessible to people that work for the federal government, as well as making any information resources provided by the federal government (such as web sites) fully accessible to the public.

Section 508 mandates accessibility for a whole lot of things, such as software applications, websites, telecommunications, multimedia products, etc. It specifies standards for things like captioning and audio descriptions for video content, HTML markup (so web sites will function well with screen readers), and alternative input methods for desktop and portable computers. In short, it requires that any EIT funded by the federal government is accessible to everyone, no matter what disabilities they may have.

The DOJ is required by Section 508 to periodically survey federal agencies to assess compliance levels, and last week’s report is based on the recent responses of 318 participants from 89 federal agencies. The main takeaway from the report, as well summarized by the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology, is that, 14 years after the enactment of Section 508, most agencies have a ways to go to achieve true compliance. For example, only 40% of respondents developed software with a process to ensure its accessibility.

The report also offers a list of recommedations to achieve better compliance, most of which should (hopefully) fall under the "no brainer" category, e.g. Perform actual product testing.

Being a former web developer myself, and one who worked in the non-profit sector and so was familiar with implementing web accessibility standards, this is the area of the report I was most interested in. Web accessibility standards imposed by Section 508 are based on guidelines defined by the W3Cs Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). They require things like alt tags on images, redundant text links for server-side image maps, and row and column headers for data tables. Fun stuff!

I’m glad to say that the survey reflects that accessibility of federal web sites is probably the area where compliance is greatest. Survey respondents were asked a number of questions about the accessibility of the home page of their public-facing web sites and reported, among other things, the following:

* 82% reported using alternative text for non-text page elements

* 78% of the respondents who offer multimedia on their home page reported the use of synchronized text captions or audio descriptions

* 84% reported that their sites were readable if CSS were deactivated

* 88% of respondents that reported using data tables reported using row and column headers

* 86% of respondents that reported using frames (ugh) reported using descriptive titles; more importantly, 64% of respondents said they didn’t use frames at all - yay!

You get the idea. The report contains lots more information, including similar questions about the accessibility of intranets, web forms and applications. It’s well worth perusing for a few minutes. Overall, the results for web accessibility are not so bad - but there’s still lots of room for improvement.

I remember in my days having to label images with alt text and longdescs, and properly marking up table headers (back when we used tables way way WAY too much). It was tedious, but I also remember running web sites through screen readers like JAWS and how eye-opening it was to try and navigate a website without looking at it. That brought home how important it was to make a web site accessible.

Of course, if you work for a federal agency, or if your company or organization receives federal funds, it’s not just a choice, it’s the law (insert ominous music here).

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