Disabled feds want to be involved in making IT more accessible

Crowdsourced survey urges pretesting and better communication to ease tech hurdles.

Federal workers with disabilities should be called on to test government information technology systems before new systems are rolled out and the White House should impose uniform governmentwide guidelines for accessibility, respondents to an ongoing crowdsourced survey are saying.

Federal technology officials also should do more to educate contractors and private sector developers about government accessibility requirements, according to participants in the IdeaScale survey sponsored by the Chief Acquisition Officers and Chief Information Officers councils and the General Services Administration.

The survey, which launched March 19 and closes April 9, is gathering input for a strategic plan announced in July to improve government compliance with Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act Amendments. Section 508 requires federal agencies to make their IT systems accessible to employees with disabilities whenever possible or to provide a reasonable accommodation that makes the system accessible.

IdeaScale has become the crowdsourcing platform of choice for federal technology leaders seeking public input on new initiatives. During the past several months, officials have used the website to gather input on the proposed federal mobility strategy, government records management practices and other issues.

The government's reliance on IdeaScale upset one commenter who noted on the survey that the site doesn't work effectively with screen-reading technology that converts computer text to audio clips for blind and visually impaired users.

"How on earth can we be having an online dialogue about improving implementation of Section 508 using a platform that itself is not compliant with Section 508?" the commenter asked. "Those of us who use screen readers cannot even vote on the ideas! Giving us an inaccessible platform on which to cast our votes for aspects of an issue that is so vitally important to our ability to access information and participate in the federal workforce is extremely insulting and demoralizing."

That comment -- the sixth most popular on the survey -- pointed to one of the thornier issues of the government's adoption of commercial platforms for citizen engagement such as IdeaScale and YouTube. While those platforms tend to be cheaper and reach a broader audience, they also are apt to take a one-size-fits-all approach, making it difficult for the government to lead in areas such as accessibility for the disabled.

Other suggestions on the page included establishing a GSA Schedule for accessible products, creating a governmenwide office for employees to lodge Section 508-related complaints, and initiating pilot programs to develop best practices.

As of Friday afternoon the survey had gathered 88 suggestions, 320 comments and 820 votes.