Federal Digital Accessibility: Fulfilling the Demands of Section 508

April 24, 2023

Federal government digital accessibility is the law

In the digital world, there is growing awareness that websites, mobile apps, and other digital technologies must be made accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When the law was first passed in 1990, the internet was still in its infancy, but both the federal Department of Justice and federal courts have ruled that digital accessibility falls within the ADA’s requirements. In fact, web and digital accessibility efforts are regularly summarized as “ADA compliance”.

The ADA covers public accommodations as well as local and state government bodies and agencies. But the federal government is mandated to provide accessible websites under a different law, the Rehabilitation Act, amended most recently in 1998.

What is Section 508 and who does it apply to?

Digital accessibility is addressed in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to be exact. It requires all federal agencies and departments to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities, including both employees and members of the public. This includes websites, PDFs, and digital kiosks. The requirements also apply to federal government digital procurement as well as some bodies that receive federal funding.

But it’s clear that these requirements have not been implemented as intended. Section 508 directs the Attorney General to issue a biennial report to Congress and the present on federal government website accessibility, but this year it issued its first report (albeit abridged) since 2012. The report, which largely relies on federal agencies’ self-reported data, found that a majority of agency accessibility statements require at least some remediation to requirements. It further found that only one-third of PDFs within a sample of the top 10 downloaded files were accessible.

To be fair, the federal government’s digital footprint is enormous. There are more than 1,300 .gov domains, each of which has multiple website subdomains (not to mention intranet sites). But that means it’s a significant barrier to accessibility when 10% of public-facing federal websites that have been tested are found to be not fully accessible. That makes it all the more important to invest in upgrading digital accessibility to meet Section 508 standards.

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What is digital accessibility?

Ultimately, federal websites and other information technology needs to be usable and accessible to people with disabilities on an equal basis. This must cover the full range of disabilities including those who are blind, low vision, deaf, hard of hearing, along with people with other fine motor, cognitive, speech or neurological limitations.

Designing and developing digital technologies with accessibility in mind require attention to factors like text size, color contrast, video captioning, and avoiding flashes that can trigger epileptic episodes. But it also must account for users’ assistive technologies such as browser zoom and screen magnifiers as well as screen reader software used by people who are blind or low vision.

Large populations depend on accessible digital access

According to US Census’ Survey of Income and Program Participation, almost one-fifth of Americans have a disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that number is as high as 26%. Many, but not all, of these are older Americans above the age of 65. As the US population continues to age, the number of people with disabilities is expected to rise.

For many government bodies, their intended constituents have higher rates of disabilities than the general population. For example, recipients of Social Security are by definition older adults or those receiving disability benefits. Similarly, Veterans Affairs serves a population that is more likely to experience disabilities. 

Increased Congressional attention

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated reliance on federal websites and apps and brought renewed attention to federal digital inaccessibility. Over the past several years, Congress has raised concerns on a bipartisan basis  over the federal government’s digital accessibility efforts. In particular, the Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act (2020) mandates additional reporting by the VA regarding the accessibility of its websites to people with disabilities.

In the years since, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA)  has continued to demand that federal agencies take action to comply with Section 508 accessibility requirements and that they provide additional reporting and transparency on their progress. Late last year, Casey issued a report detailing the results of an investigation into digital accessibility in the VA and across the federal government. It found widespread accessibility barriers across the government rooted in insufficient oversight at the agency level.

The most recent consolidated appropriations act (Section 752) sets an explicit timeline for agency reporting on Section 508 accessibility status and progress with a deadline of August 11, 2023.

Compliance standards

The Access Board has its own standards for ICT accessibility, but has also adopted the more widely used Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are developed and set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The current Section 508 standards use WCAG version 2.0 at the Level AA standard; W3C has issued another version 2.1 in 2018 and expects to release version 2.2 this year.

It is important to note that while automated accessibility testing software is available, it can only detect 40% of accessibility issues at most. Manual accessibility testing is critical to properly identify the current accessibility state and document the steps necessary to meet WCAG conformance guidelines in compliance with Section 508.

Our own testing

Access Armada did our own testing sample in late 2022 to gain a better understanding of several agencies’ current accessibility. The good news is that these sites tended to have fewer issues on average than many private sector sites that we have reviewed. That said, we did consistently find certain types of accessibility issues, many of which require technical remediation including:

  • Focus indicators that had insufficient color contrast
  • Screen reader compatibility issues with visible content not announced
  • Missing or improper use of semantic markup (such as navigation landmarks)
  • Lack of alternative text for linked images
  • Disappearing content when using browser zoom

Taking steps towards compliance

To ensure Section 508 compliance, agencies must take proactive steps towards creating a comprehensive digital accessibility program. Even as the federal government face increased Congressional and DOJ oversight, multiple agencies have been targeted with lawsuits for lack of Section 508 compliance, including the Social Security Administration, Small Business Administration, and Department of Homeland Security. 

The specifics may differ depending on scope and current digital accessibility maturity, but digital accessibility programs should include:

  1. Technical Accessibility Audits: Automated and manual testing with assistive technologies of representative templates, components and pages from identified websites in order to document accessibility barriers and bugs. Defect reports should include technical recommendations for remediation of inaccessible code and source outputs.
  2. Remediation and Testing: Technical implementation of the recommended remediations and additional testing to verify compliance. Also includes content accessibility remediation, addition of accurate alternative text and captioning for media, as well as manual remediation of PDF accessibility.
  3. Shifting Left: a.k.a. incorporation of accessibility into new development: Introduction of accessibility best practices and quality gates into the production of new user experience wireframes, visual designs, and development of new code. Includes automated and manual reviews.
  4. Training and process management: Document processes for technical, content, and editorial teams to maintain accessibility quality and avoid the inadvertent introduction of regressions or net-new accessibility barriers. Develop a roadmap for ongoing monitoring. 

Meeting Section 752 reporting requirements

With only a few months remaining until the August reporting deadline, agencies must scope and schedule manual accessibility testing to collect the necessary data. While some agencies have advanced towards Section 508 compliance independently, partnering with third-party experts can help accelerate and streamline the testing process. Our team can help your organization meet its Section 508 (and WCAG 2.0) standards. Contact us to find out how your organization can build its roadmap to digital accessibility maturity.

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