The Department of Justice plans to file its first report in a decade on the accessibility of federal government websites, following a bipartisan push in Congress.
“The Department of Justice ... recognizes the critical importance of accessible technology to millions of Americans with disabilities,” the DOJ said in a letter received Monday by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who had written to the department in June to demand that the government report on its compliance with accessibility standards.
The DOJ added that it intends to submit the document “in the coming weeks.”
Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federal agencies are required to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. The DOJ must also collect and report information to the president and Congress about federal agencies’ compliance with Section 508 every two years, and it must make the report publicly available.
“It’s something that should have been done every other year, and now we’re more than 10 years down the road,” Glenda Sims, the chief information accessibility officer at digital accessibility company Deque Systems, told HuffPost. “But we have to do that. It’s monitoring the health of our important government websites that people need to use and have independent access to.”
The most recent report filed by the DOJ in 2012 showed “mixed levels of success” in federal website accessibility. In his letter this summer, Casey and six other senators requested that the department resume its reports and explain why it hadn’t filed one for so long.
“On behalf of the 26 percent of Americans living with a disability, including the 40 percent of people over age 65 who have a disability, we write to urge DOJ to take immediate steps to meet its obligations and once again issue these biennial reports,” the senators wrote in June.
“Without regular reports, Congress, taxpayers, and agencies themselves lack a crucial source of feedback for identifying and resolving longstanding accessibility issues.”
The DOJ’s recent letter, which Casey’s office shared with HuffPost, did not provide an explanation for its decadelong lack of compliance. The department did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on its renewed commitment to reporting.
“Despite legal requirements, these reports had not been issued for a decade, leaving Congress without critical information about how the federal government is addressing accessibility of its technology,” Casey told HuffPost. “We have a long way to go to make all aspects of the federal government accessible for people with disabilities, but getting this information from [the] DOJ is a critical step.”
The U.S. Access Board is responsible for developing federal accessibility standards, which include requirements for ensuring capability for assistive technology. According to 2019 statistics from the Census Bureau, nearly 11.5 million Americans have hearing disabilities and 7.5 million have visual disabilities. Website accessibility is important for such people because it provides equal access to information, said Sims.
But in a 2021 report, the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that many pages on popular federal websites failed an automated accessibility test. The report showed that 30% of homepages did not pass the test, and 48% failed on at least one of their three most popular pages.
Sims believes that developers aren’t intentionally building access barriers, but rather that the barriers are easy to miss. She hopes that in the future, developers will be motivated to incorporate accessibility correctly into their website designs.
She emphasized that the design and development community needs automatic accessibility checkers in place. “I think that making it a requirement to put in these automated testing tools will help raise awareness,” Sims said.
She added that analyzing accessibility design in this way would “make it easy for developers and designers and content contributors to run checks so that we don’t always have to be dragging an accessibility expert in to figure out whether it works or not.”