As digital accessibility experts, the bulk of our work is with businesses and NGOs. And our government work tends to focus on federal or state government websites. But for most Americans, local county and municipal governments and agencies have a much greater day-to-day impact on their lives.
Whereas customers with disabilities have the option to relocate their business to companies that provide accessible websites, citizens have little choice but to use the digital channels provided by the government. As more communication and services are delivered through digital channels, equal digital access is critical. This process has only accelerated over the past couple of years during the recent Covid-19 pandemic response as municipal offices went remote and public meetings and hearings moved online.
Take a look at your town’s website. I was checking out my local township website to get some election related information last week. And it’s kind of awful. For everyone. But especially for users with disabilities.
ADA Title II and local government websites
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, established requirements for nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government services, places of public accommodation, and commercial facilities. Under the ADA, state and local government agencies are required to provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities (“program accessibility”).
This includes state and municipal websites, but goes much further than that. Some examples of local or state government entities that must provide accessible websites include:
- Local school systems and boards of education
- Public universities
- Public libraries
- Police departments
The ADA doesn’t explicitly mention websites; it came onto the scene just a bit too early. But Title II does specifically require that government bodies make their public communications accessible and the plain meaning does include websites. In fact, the Department of Justice has long clarified that the ADA applies to websites and apps (for both government and private businesses).
What’s required for website accessibility under Title II?
Federal government website accessibility standards are described in detail in Section 508 regulations. But the government has never clarified any requirements as to what constitutes digital accessibility under the ADA. Federal courts have generally relied on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1 Level AA standards, but it would be preferable for the government to provide additional clarity. Luckily, the Department of Justice has finally (as of summer 2022) announced its intention to issue detailed regulations for local and state government accessibility requirements. This should be useful guidance for government bodies.
What’s at stake?
Of course, accessibility is its own end. Ensuring that government communication and services are usable and useful for everyone is important in and of itself. But noncompliant government bodies can also face lawsuits and other penalties. Under the ADA, the federal government is empowered to seek fines for violations and has entered into settlements with both private and public entities.
Private lawsuits are also increasingly common. Over the past 6 years, the number of lawsuits filed under the ADA have grown to thousands per year (and that does not include most cases that settle before reaching court). Serial plaintiffs often seek out inaccessible websites as easy targets including municipal government sites.
Common local government web accessibility issues
Local government websites have many of the same accessibility issues as any other site on the internet. These can include images without alt text, color combinations that make it harder to read text, and barriers to screen reader technology. But there are some accessibility issues that are more common specifically for governments:
Digital access to government meetings and proceedings
Many local government bodies broadcast council and committee meetings to make these proceedings more accessible to residents that cannot show up in person. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many meetings were moved fully online with residents given the opportunity to participate and comment remotely over Zoom. When doing so, it is important to ensure that these live (or recorded) videos include captioning (or written transcripts after they are recorded).
PDFs of official documents
Governments produce a lot of paperwork. Most of it isn’t necessarily produced for the web, but does end up using web or email as a distribution channel. This can includes anything from scanned paper documents to brochures and posters. The PDF format can present a number of accessibility challenges including compatibility with screen reader users and difficulties with zooming for visually impaired users. (PDFs are also not particularly mobile friendly.) The best solution is to provide all digital content as HTML, but it is also possible to produce accessible and screen-reader compatible versions of PDFs.
How to minimize risk by becoming ADA compliant
Procurement with accessibility in mind
The most cost effective strategy for web accessibility is to build your website to be accessible in the first place. Especially if you are considering a redesign in the near future, you can save a lot of future expense by planning carefully with your web development team.
Most local governments contract with vendors that specialize in building government websites. Unfortunately, like many other agencies, these vendors may not have experience or expertise in designing and building accessible web experiences. In particular, agencies that sell (or use) automated accessibility overlays are unlikely to be proficient in building accessibly (and increase your likelihood of being sued). When selecting an agency, local government procurement officials should also make sure to include contractual provisions mandating that all solutions be in conformance with WCAG.
Audit for accessibility issues
If your next website rebuild is far in the future, there are steps you can take now to begin the process of accessibility remediation. You can start by commissioning an accessibility audit to gain a better understanding of the current accessibility status of your local government website. You can work with an accessibility specialist or agency to get a prioritized list of accessibility issues along with recommendations for how best to remediate them.
Consider content accessibility
Accessibility is not a one-time effort. How your site is coded is very important for accessibility, but the content that you produce can be just as important. To ensure your website remains accessible, you need to create policies for structuring content, producing image alt text, and generating screen-reader accessible PDFs.
Ensure local government employees are trained on accessibility
Make sure that all local government employees responsible for creating and maintaining website content are properly trained on accessibility policies, best practices, and knowledge to ensure that they create accessible content.