OMB releases ‘broad’ accessibility guidance for government tech

Jason Kostansek/Getty Images

This is the first new guidance on Section 508 in a decade.

Agencies have new marching orders on tech accessibility with guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, released Thursday. 

It’s the first guidance issued on the law that requires federal tech to be accessible — Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act — since 2013.

Nearly half of federal websites aren’t fully accessible, federal chief information officer Clare Martorana told Nextgov/FCW. And among top PDF downloads in the largest agencies, those under the Chief Financial Officers Act, only 23% conformed to 508 standards, as of February.

The goal, said Martorana, is “creating the culture change needed for digital accessibility. This is not somebody else’s problem.”

About one in four Americans have a disability, or 61 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is our responsibility as a government to deliver those services in a way that someone can access them,” said Martorana. “Accessibility is an essential part of federal government modernization.”

“Accessibility must be incorporated, unless an exception applies, from the very beginning of the design and development of any digital experience and integrated throughout every step of the ICT lifecycle, including qualitative and inclusive research, feature prioritization, testing, deployment, enhancements, and maintenance activities,” the memo states.

The new guidance tasks agencies with establishing a Section 508 program with a program manager, as well as accompanying resources, policies and procedures. 

Agencies are to set up digital accessibility statements on their websites and a feedback mechanism for people to report problems. 

The memo encourages agencies to include 508 program managers in acquisitions and says that feds should do comprehensive accessibility testing before deployment, set up a process to make all agency electronic communications accessible and monitor accessibility over time.

GSA is also tapped to look into setting up a standardized accessibility conformance reporting process for vendors and a testing lab with specialists to do assessments and user research related to accessibility. The agency will be establishing a governmentwide service to help agencies buy accessibility-related products and services, per the memo’s instructions.

The CIO Council is tasked with looking into a governmentwide program to provide assistive technology devices and consultation services to agencies. Training and certifications for 508 program managers is another focus.

Agencies can look to the Technology Modernization Fund to finance potential accessibility projects, which could fit under the fund’s customer experience allocation, said Martorana, who also noted that accessibility is part of the annual budget guidance and cycle.

Asked what accounts for the government’s current tech accessibility track record, Martorana said that her “hypotheses” are that a lack of regular measurement of accessibility “allows it to fall through the cracks.”

Also, “not all agencies have someone accountable for compliance internally for their internal tools to support their own workforce and externally for the services they deliver,” she said.

The new directions for agencies come months after OMB issued long-awaited digital experience guidance, which also featured some mandates on accessibility. 

What sets the newest memo apart: “This is a really broad brush, focusing on the public and on federal employees,” said Martorana. “Improving federal customer experience, how we build trust in government and how we create an inclusive workplace is what this is about.”