18F Wants to Make More Dot-Govs Accessible to People with Disabilities


Many federal websites aren't designed for the visually and hearing impaired. 18F is trying to change that.

Many common Web practices -- such as CAPTCHA, which prompts users to type distorted words or symbols to prove they aren’t spam-bots -- aren’t designed for people who are deaf or blind.  

The General Services Administration’s quick-fix IT team 18F is trying to change that standard, beginning with federal websites. On Tuesday, 18F hosted its first “Accessibility Hackathon," tasking volunteers and 18F staff with creating technology to improve the Internet experience for disabled communities. (18F helmed the event in conjunction with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research, and DC Legal Hackers, a technology and law meet-up group.)

After spending three hours on development work, volunteers presented a handful of concepts and prototypes, including a webcam-based alternative to CAPTCHA for the visually impaired that would ask users to perform a specific motion in front of the camera, instead of typing in a word.

Federal agencies are required, under Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act, to make their sites accessible to people with disabilities. Last month, the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency, proposed updating Section 508 to be less product-specific -- outlining requirements for “two-way communication” instead of for “telephones," accommodating smartphone, tablets and other multifunctional devices.

18F’s goal was to share ideas, and in some cases, open-source code, which could be integrated into future government projects, said 18F’s social media and public engagement representative, Ori Hoffer.

The event was less about creating viable products and more “about educating and building relationships among the community” of federal tech employees and tech-minded volunteers from nonprofits and the private sector, said 18F member Jackie Kazil. She added that representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Justice Department and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, among other federal groups, attended the event.

“Often, accessibility is solely thought of as, ‘What do I have to do to be 508 compliant’ ... I’m hoping that part of what we’re doing today is making people think beyond just meeting the law, but also thinking about it through the whole process of the experience they’re delivering,” she said.

Eventually, other agencies might come back to 18F, asking its tech team to build some of these prototypes for them, Hoffer said -- similar to the way 18F has been working with federal groups to implement the HTTPS-only security protocol.

At the hackathon, one team designed a “Section 508 Procurement Playbook” for technology companies hoping to contract with the federal government, outlining what they’d need to do to be compliant. Though Section 508 is included in contract proposal evaluations, it’s rarely addressed, according to the team members. They also suggested issuing incentive payments to companies meeting accessibility requirements.

Another group worked on a system for the visually impaired that could translate images on Twitter to text that could be picked up by a text-reader, using automated image recognition or even crowdsourcing.

During remarks at end of the event, federal Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith noted that the Twitter image system could be an opportunity to generate metadata, and to “make the content in general a lot more valuable across the board ... people could have it for accessibility, as well as search.”

Smith acknowledged during her remarks that the federal government is “really using some [technology] that we could really upgrade."

One of the challenges, she added, was hiring technical talent.

"We’re the country that makes WordPress and Amazon and Facebook ... so why can’t those Americans be in government?”

(Image via Shutter_M/ Shutterstock.com)