Poorly Designed State and Local Government Websites Might Violate Federal Rules

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Making digital resources accessible to those who are blind or have limited or impaired vision is important for Americans With Disabilities Act Title II compliance.

In the Internet age, making government accessible doesn’t just mean improving handicap entrances to public buildings and polling places—although those things are certainly vital, too.

As more state and local government services move into the digital space, it has become increasingly important that services provided on the web are accessible to each and every citizen that might need them.

But the Internet is a very different place for people with disabilities. Those with vision, hearing, or even physical impairments interact with the web in different ways, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there surfing.

Some Internet users who are blind, have low vision, limited vision or have a visual impairment, for instance, employ assistive technologies like screen readers—tools that convert all text and images on a given page to the spoken word, often read at lightening speeds that sighted web users might initially find unintelligible. As an interesting exercise, feel free to try out a screen-reader for yourself.

Technology has made incredible advancements in bringing those with disabilities into the digital fold—there are even assistive technologies that allow people unable to use a mouse to control a cursor with their eye movements.

Web accessibility is governed by several standards or guidelines. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that federal agencies give employees and members of the public with disabilities equal access to electronic information. The most widely followed set of recommendations is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, published by the World Wide Web Consortium. WCAG is driven by four principles—that digital content must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for all Internet users. Within these four principles are 12 guidelines which provide a basic framework to achieve this goal.

Where Do Local Governments Play a Role?

In terms of web accessibility for state and local governments, “it comes back to making sure that the people who need that information can act upon it,” says Ashley Fruechting, the senior director of marketing and strategic partnerships at Vision Internet, an El Segundo, California-based firm that specializes in creating web tools for the public sector.

The regulation directly applicable to government entities is Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act—which protects against “discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs, and activities provided by state and local government entities.”

Although Title II was originally created to guide the modification of physical government structures—ensuring adequate wheelchair accessibility on sidewalks, for example—the electronic programming and services offered by local governments on their websites, for instance, fall under Title II’s purview as well.

As the U.S. Department of Justice fact sheet on website accessibility explains, “poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some from entering.”

The USDOJ has been reviewing compliance with Title II by state and local governments since 1999 as part of Project Civic Access, which helped lead to settlement agreements in over 200 localities in all 50 states.

“This is an area of increasing importance for local governments,” Fruechting points out, “even though the standards have existed for a number of years.” It is for this reason that Vision Internet has included web accessibility among its list of six trends that will shape online government in 2016.

Recently, there has been a significant uptick in Title II settlement agreements. “In 2015 there were 14 settlements in cities and counties across the country as opposed to only five in 2013 and none in 2014,” Fruechting notes.

A Case Study: Bend, Oregon

The city of Bend, Oregon, currently a client of Vision Internet, had previously faced ADA scrutiny over its website starting in 2004. Part of the resulting USDOJ settlement agreement required that the central Oregon city take actions to bring its website up to date with WCAG standards to make its digital-based services more accessible to those with disabilities. As part of its settlement agreement, Bend had to “ensure that all new and modified web pages and content are accessible.”

Karin Morris has worked for nearly three years as the Bend’s accessibility manager to help the city comply with the settlement agreement. She sees maintaining web accessibility as a crucial part of her job. “It’s really important that government websites are accessible,” she says, adding that “that’s how people are getting information about things that impact their lives.”

To Morris, expanding access to Bend’s digital services and programs “levels the playing field for everyone.”

According to Morris, local governments may be surprised by the little things they do that make it difficult for people with disabilities to access the information they put out. PDFs are one example of information that can be difficult to access for someone using a screen-reader. Likewise, data in tables can be hard for a screen-reader to parse.

“Governments like to use Excel and put everything in their little boxes,” Morris says. She encourages governments to “think outside the box” by providing important data-based information in multiple formats, always keeping in mind that what may be the clearest format for one group, may deny access to another.

(bend.or.us)

Morris doesn’t do this work alone. Along with guidance from Vision Internet, Morris also relies upon an accessibility advisory group as well as several disabilities advocacy groups to help her vette her process. “I have friends that I send things to,” she says, “people who use screen readers, and I ask them, ‘did I do everything correctly?’ If not how I fix it.”

Morris likes to say she “crashed into” this kind of work. In her 20s, she suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a car accident and was in a coma for one month. She knows from experience what it’s like to live with a disability and brings this personal perspective to her work. “I understand the frustration that individuals with disabilities face. I see both worlds and I’ve been on both sides.”

Although Bend has come a long way in terms of ADA compliance, and has since resolved its settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, Morris acknowledges that there is still work to be done.

“It’s a challenge. There isn’t a cure-all fix for everything. You try your best, and when people need assistance, when people need something in an alternative way, you provide that. That’s part of trying to be good servants to your citizens and taxpayers.”

Quinn Libson writes for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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