Many federal websites don't meet accessibility requirements, study finds

Out of 72 government websites studied, 30% didn't meet accessibility standards, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

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Compliance with federal standards for web accessibility on federal government domains varies widely, according to a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank for science and tech policy, released on Thursday.

Of the 72 government domains studied, those identified by ITIF as the most popular, 30% of the homepages didn't meet standards for accessibility.

The study zeroed in on standards outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires agencies to follow web accessibility requirements. ITIF authors analyzed the pages with automated tests and qualitative assessments.

In addition to homepages, the study also surveyed the second and third top pages for those 72 federal government domains. Overall, only about half of the websites surveyed met modern standards of web accessibility for users with disabilities on all three pages, the study found.

The White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the other hand, earned perfect scores for all three of their top pages. The Biden administration has committed to adhering to the more recent accessibility standards, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1, as opposed to the 2.0 version required by Section 508.

The report also included recommendations. One is that biennial reports on Section 508 compliance by the Department of Justice be made public. DOJ isn't required to release them and hasn't since 2012.

The authors also recommended the creation of a federal website accessibility test lab, a "sprint" to fix identified problems and a "hackathon" to develop solutions with artificial intelligence. The General Services Administration could also expand its Digital Analytics Program, a web analytics tool available to federal agencies, to include accessibility testing.

This isn't the first time ITIF has taken on this subject. In a 2017 study focused on a larger number of federal government websites, they found that 42% of federal government homepages failed their accessibility review, as compared to 30% in this review of website homepages.

"Whether that is a success or not depends on your perspective … ideally all agencies would have addressed these issues by now," said Daniel Castro, ITIF vice president and co-author of the report. "There has been some progress, but not nearly enough."

The newest report also found that one-third of the websites didn't have an easily findable page to report accessibility issues, so agencies might not be aware of the full breadth of issues, he said.

Either way, when agencies fail to meet standards for accessibility, people with disabilities bear the cost, the authors of the study say.

"Failing to make federal websites accessible for people with disabilities creates obstacles for millions of Americans, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved many government services online," said Ashley Johnson, a policy analyst at ITIF and co-author of the report in a statement.

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