New bill would beef up accessibility reporting requirements for agencies

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Agency and department heads would be required to appoint “Section 508 compliance officers” to ensure they meet accessibility mandates.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa, chair of the Senate Committee on Aging, introduced a new proposal last week meant to improve the accessibility of federal websites and IT. 

The proposal, called the Federal Agency Accessibility Compliance Act, “will bolster the role of federal Section 508 compliance officers in federal agencies, require agency and department heads to personally certify… that their organization's technology is accessible and to post plans and timelines if their agency technology is not accessible,” Casey said during a Senate Aging Committee hearing on government tech accessibility on Sept. 21.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal IT to be accessible for people with disabilities — a group that makes up about 13% of the noninstitutionalized U.S. population, according to 2019 Census data.

Currently, agencies have Section 508 programs and coordinators, required by a 2013 Office of Management and Budget memo, according to a Congressional Research Service report, but Casey’s  proposal would create new Section 508 compliance officers responsible for ensuring that their agencies meet the law’s standards.

In February, the Department of Justice issued its first legally-mandated report on 508 compliance in federal agencies since 2012 — at the urging of Casey and other senators — which found that 14% of CFO Act agencies’ web pages weren’t accessible. Inside government agencies, the conformance rate of intranet pages is even more dismal at only 41%. Among the government’s most-downloaded files, 80% of the PDFs were not accessible.The report also outlined problems with agency accessibility testing and staffing issues.

The bill, co-sponsored by four Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is the latest from Casey in a years-long focus on government accessibility online, such as a recent law requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to report to Congress on website accessibility. 

More recently, Casey also introduced a bill that would stand up an advisory committee for accessibility at VA. He and other lawmakers, including ranking member of the committee Mike Braun, R-Ind., have also requested that the Government Accountability Office report on agencies’ 508 compliance. 

“These bills are common sense legislation designed to ensure federal government services, programs and communications are accessible to all Americans,” said Casey. 

Braun agreed that the senators have “heard from many constituents that the federal government has not done a good job at complying, far too often, leaving people with disabilities behind,” although he cautioned that “we must ensure that states do not lose the flexibility they need to continue to introduce programs and mechanisms that work best for their unique communities,” he said.

The Justice Department issued proposed rulemaking on accessibility in state and local governments under the Americans with Disabilities Act in August. Although Braun didn’t reference that rulemaking directly, he did say that issues with accessibility on the federal level “ought to give us pause before we try to maybe do more through the federal government.”

Several witnesses, meanwhile, said that standards for accessibility would be helpful.

On the federal level, new digital experience guidance issued by OMB includes requirements for accessibility, including directing agencies to use the same standards referenced in the proposed DOJ rule: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines by the World Wide Web Consortium.

“WCAG is an industry standard. Having WCAG as the standard for government websites will provide a clear standard for those responsible for creating and overseeing websites and technology,” Chris Westbook, a web accessibility engineer for Allyant who is also blind, said in his written testimony.

The new guidance also directs agencies to use accessibility testing — both manual and automated — include people with disabilities in user research and maintain a feedback mechanism for people to contact the government if they’re having accessibility problems online. 

Ronza Othman, president of the National Association of Blind Government Employees, told senators that a lack of prioritization is one of the biggest contributors to non-compliance in federal agencies, as well as a lack of knowledge and education. 

For people with disabilities, the impact is felt in how they access government information and services.

“Imagine not being able to file your local taxes online. This is the situation I face simply because I have a disability,” said Westbook. “When I went to the county website to pay my taxes online, I couldn't because I couldn't find the button used to submit the form. This ultimately forced me to seek sighted assistance to perform a task that everyone else can perform independently.”

“Government websites must be accessible so that all constituents at all levels of government have access to programs, services and information,” he said.

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