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Government Not Meeting Minimum Accessibility Standards on Federal Websites, GSA Report Finds

January 3, 2024
Source: FedScoop

The General Services Administration [(GSA)] on Thursday submitted its latest report on federal website accessibility to Congress, an analysis that represents the next step in the government’s long-running and often-beleaguered effort to ensure that everyone can use its digital resources.

Section 508, which was established as a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act, remains the primary portion of federal law outlining agencies’ responsibilities for digital accessibility. Critically, compliance with Section 508 remains a major challenge for federal agencies. Regular automated testing conducted by the GSA has shown that many federal websites have at least one documented accessibility issue, like not including an image description. 

The assessment published on Thursday found that “overall compliance to Section 508 is well below expectations given the federal government has had over 20 years to implement programs capable of achieving and maintaining modern ICT Standards.” More than three quarters of the agencies that responded were at or below average in terms of compliance, the report explained, and less than 30 percent of top-viewed online content analyzed conformed with standards.

GSA’s analysis called for required Section 508 training and increased agency oversight, along with potential new steps for Congress, like updating definitions in the accessibility statute and exploring steps for “proactively” enforcing the law.

“The government as a whole is not meeting the minimum standard or legal obligation to provide equal access to all members of the public and federal employees with disabilities,” the assessment found.

The new report, which is called the “Governmentwide Section 508 Assessment” and is based on compliance assessments submitted by many federal agencies, was required under the appropriations law signed at the end of last year. Those agency analyses, which asked officials about their investments in digital accessibility, like their staffing and technical evaluations, were due to GSA back in August. Agencies were previously required to submit semi-annual reports. 

At the time of publication, FedScoop hadn’t received responses to requests for comment on the report from the GSA, the U.S. Access Board, an independent government agency that focuses on accessibility issues and creates technical standards, or the three congressional committees supposed to receive the report — the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Appropriations and Homeland Security committees.

The assessment comes after the White House last week released a memo meant to guide agencies in their compliance with Section 508 and help boost federal website accessibility.“ All members of the public and all Federal employees should have equal access to government,” said an OMB spokesperson, who pointed to that memo.

Many Chief Financial Officers Act agencies contacted by FedScoop did not want to provide comment before the GSA’s publication of the report. Some, however, were willing to comment on their accessibility investments and the new OMB requirements. The Small Business Administration, for instance, said it remained committed to ensuring its website was accessible.

“We are aware of the OMB memo and will continue to closely follow their guidance to ensure the SBA maintains the highest possible standards of accessibility not just on its website, but across all programs and services,” a spokesperson for the SBA told FedScoop.

The Environmental Protection Agency told FedScoop in advance of the report’s publication that 93 percent of its websites conformed with Section 508 and that nearly 150,000 of its websites were tested for compliance. The guidance shared by OMB “aligns” with the EPA’s existing planning, said Dominique Joseph, a spokesperson for the agency. She added that the agency’s Section 508 officer can collaborate with the agency’s chief information and acquisition officers and that updated guidance for the agency’s acquisitions was currently under review.

“In the coming year, the 508 Program plans to expand its efforts to collect, measure and dashboard digital accessibility compliance data,” Joseph said. “For example, EPA intends to increase 508 compliance manual and automated assessments, leveraging existing tools [and] acquisition tools provided by GSA and expanding the complaints process. EPA would also like to centralize the collection of digital accessibility complaints and issues that are received across the agency.”

This story was updated with comments from OMB.

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Upcoming Webinar from the ADA National Network:
Section 508 Webinar Series: Highlights from the New Government-Wide Section 508 Assessment
Date: Tuesday, January 30, 2024 | Registration required