Administration Seeks to Ensure Information is Accessible for People with Disabilities
by Gavin Baker, 8/1/2011
The Obama administration is working to ensure that government information is accessible for people with disabilities, the White House announced in a statement last week. Accessibility is a critical element to protecting all Americans' right to know, and the administration is right to seek to improve it.
Specifically, the administration is drafting a strategic plan to improve compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires agencies' information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities. Improving compliance "will make the government more open and accessible as people with disabilities will be able to better access all the information the federal government has placed online," the statement notes.
Section 508 is vital to transparency because online government information is accessed in a variety of ways. Although most users visit websites with a monitor, mouse, and speakers, people with disabilities may use different means. For instance, people with visual impairments might use a screen reader, which reads the content of a screen aloud, rather than or in addition to a visual display. Accessible design allows these assistive technologies to present the information in different ways.
Although the law requires accessible design, unfortunately, agencies don't always follow through. A study published recently in Government Information Quarterly (subscription required) evaluated the home pages of 100 federal websites and found more than 90 percent to have accessibility violations. For instance, Ready.gov, a website by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help Americans prepare for disasters, presented information in a format that was inaccessible to blind people. The study also notes that, although the law requires the Justice Department to report on the government's compliance with Section 508 every two years, the department has not done so since 2001.
The administration's latest announcement builds on Executive Order 13571, signed by President Obama in April, which called for improving agency websites in compliance with Section 508. Since then, the administration has announced plans to reform federal website policy and established a task force to develop recommendations.
The administration has not released further details about what topics the accessibility plan might address or when the plan would be released. However, the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology stated in a blog post that advocates expect the plan to address enforcement and benchmarks for accessibility.
The Department of Energy (DOE) provided an example of what results the plan might yield. In a blog post, the department's Bill Valdez linked the announcement to the redesign of DOE's website. The new site, Valdez wrote, "will provide for a more integrated approach to 508-compliance, such as full video transcripts."
Combined with robust implementation, the administration's accessibility plan could strengthen open government. Access to government information – including information about government activities as well as indispensable information about health and safety – is a right shared by all Americans regardless of disability. Moreover, accessibility can drive improvements for all users, as the DOE example demonstrates: video transcripts are helpful not just for users with disabilities, but also allow users to skim a video's contents or jump to a specific point in the video. The administration's accessibility plan will be a welcome step forward.