Federal government websites headed for major overhaul

Topics:

  • GSA
  • OMB
  • Section 508

Location:

  • United States

Driving the news- majority of federal websites do not meet basic accessibility standards:

As one of the global leaders in accessibility rights, the United States is also a pioneer in promoting digital accessibility. It was among the first countries to adopt accessibility regulations for federal government websites and their vendors. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which was enacted in 1998, is the primary accessibility law for federal agencies.

However, even with Section 508 in effect for more than 25 years, federal government agencies still have a long way to go before they are truly accessible to individuals with disabilities. A 2023 report submitted to Congress by the General Services Administration (GSA) revealed that more than 75% of the agencies covered by the self-report study had minimal or sub-optimal compliance with Section 508 standards. The report also claims that less than 30% of the most viewed content published by federal agencies is not meeting the minimum or legal standards.

This GSA report follows shortly after the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a Section 508 memo in a decade and the Department of Justice’s Notice of Proposed Rule-Making addressing digital accessibility. The OMB’s memo instructs federal agencies to create Section 508 programs that use suitable resources, such as tools, staff, and technology. A major contributor to compliance in the GSA report correlated to the amount of dedicated Section 508 staff. Agencies have been instructed to include these resources in their budgets moving forward, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have offered more detailed instructions on providing accessible and usable hardware for employees of federal agencies.

Moving the needle on digital accessibility:

In the wake of the GSA report, multiple federal agencies reaffirmed their commitment to digital accessibility. Here are a few examples.

  • The Small Business Administration (SBA) released an enhanced accessibility statement that included feedback mechanisms, a list of accessibility best practices, and a section confirming that they follow WCAG 2.0 success criteria for website accessibility.
  • Similarly, the Department of the Interior, Federal Communications Commission, Health Resources and Services Administration, USA.gov, and USAID released updated accessibility statements in the first quarter of 2024.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the media that more than 90% of its websites complied with Section 508. The agency also unveiled plans to boost the collection, measurement, and reporting of accessibility compliance data and to centralize the handling of website accessibility complaints.

The latest GSA report shows that there are still a lot of opportunities for growth and improvement when it comes to implementing digital accessibility across the federal government. The next assessment cycle, due on July 31, 2024, will determine how far government agencies have come in their efforts to make their websites a welcoming space for all users. These assessments will recur annually, drawing more internal and external attention to agencies that fall short, and hopefully increasing compliance rates.

Looking forward:

Federal agencies that do not comply with Section 508 risk facing massive consequences, particularly since many users with disabilities depend on their websites to access much-needed information. Much work needs to be done by these agencies, Congress, and other federal government stakeholders to align expectations and standardize accessibility requirements to pave the way for widespread Section 508 compliance.

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