About a quarter of Americans live with a disability, but almost a third of the most popular federal websites are difficult for people with disabilities to access.
It’s been 10 years since the Justice Department filed a biennial report on the federal government’s compliance with accessibility standards for information technology, according to a bipartisan group of concerned senators. The reports are required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
On Thursday, a group of seven senators sent a letter to the department asking the DOJ to republish those reports, and lawmakers want to know why the agency hasn’t filed them. The letter not only has bipartisan support, but also the backing of the chairs and senior members of three Senate committees.
“To have no reporting in a decade is just…unacceptable,” one of the senators, Bob Casey, D-Pa., told NPR.
“This is critical because of the barriers people with disabilities consistently face, when it comes to the full access they should have to federal government resources, and resources, especially those provided online.” , did he declare.
Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the federal government is required to make all of its websites accessible to people with disabilities and publicly report on its compliance with accessibility standards every two years.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to NPR’s request for comment on the senators’ letter.
“Website accessibility means that a website has been designed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind so that anyone can navigate this website,” says Ashley Johnson, senior policy analyst at the Foundation for information technology and innovation. This can include ensuring that websites can work well with assistive technology devices such as screen readers that read content aloud and screen magnifiers that magnify content.
Without regular reporting, “Congress, taxpayers, and the agencies themselves lack a critical source of feedback to identify and address long-standing accessibility issues,” the senators wrote.
Casey told NPR that the reports are essential — “not just so that the executive branch and the legislature have this information, but so that the information is made public so that not only people with disabilities, but all Americans know what happens in these agencies as it relates to accessibility.”
The DOJ has previously reported mixed success in making federal websites accessible
The DOJ’s last report, from 2012, had “identified significant gaps in Section 508 compliance within the federal government and included recommendations for agencies to meet their accessibility requirements.” wrote the senators. For example, the DOJ reported a “mixed level of success” in implementing Section 508 and recommended that agencies increase training, appoint 508 coordinators, and establish 508 offices or programs.
It’s unclear why the DOJ stopped publishing these biennial reports, or whether it collected Section 508 compliance data or issued recommendations more recently than 2012. Questions remain about whether the DOJ has the resources and staff to comply with the law and publish it. reports and what their plans are to start meeting the reporting requirement. The senators said they wanted responses regarding the situation by July 29.
Why is accessibility important?
In the United States, 26% of Americans live with a disability. Yet a 2021 report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that 30% of the most popular federal websites failed an automated accessibility test for their home page, and 48% of these sites failed the test on at least one of their three most popular pages. popular.
“Without accessible websites and other information technologies, people with disabilities are not treated equally under the law,” Casey said.
Johnson of the foundation said the failure of the DOJ to report on federal government compliance over the past decade speaks to a larger problem of people with disabilities who are not a priority for society as a whole.
“We’re all so used to having information at our fingertips, literally on our phones. But if you have a disability, you can’t get that information from agencies,” Casey said.
“It goes against not only transparency, but also what our society expects in terms of people’s ability to access information,” he added. “So we look forward to [the DOJ’s] answers and those answers will help us get a better idea of what is going on and what next steps to take. »