Study: Fed sites lack accessibility

"Achieving E-Government for All" report

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In their surge to get more services, online federal Web sites must not forget about accessibility for more than 165 million Americans, according to a study released today.

The "Achieving E-Government for All" report notes that 90 million adult Americans have low literacy, 53 million have some level of disability, including blindness, and 25 million primarily speak a non-English language. Commissioned by the Benton Foundation and the New York State Forum of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the study was released this week by Darrell West, director of Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy.

Study authors wanted to report on the "challenges concerning the accessibility of digital government for people with disabilities," as well those challenges faced by the illiterate, people of color and those from poor socioeconomic backgrounds.

A key finding of the study is that 63 percent of federal Web sites have a 12th-grade average readability level, while the average American citizen reads at or below the 8th-grade level. According to West, this gap limits the utility of federal Web services. West cited a need for federal agencies to recognize the problem and test themselves to ensure proper readability levels.

"Government officials should recognize equity and accessibility as important principles of government, principles that adhere in the physical and virtual worlds," West stated. "People who are poor, disabled, not highly literate or non-English speakers are entitled to an equal opportunity to access essential information and services to improve their lives."

West's team examined more than 1,600 government Web sites by using the automated online "Bobby" service at bobby.watchfire.com to test accessibility.

To examine accessibility levels in regards to disabled users, the study relied on two indicators: compliance with the Priority Level One guidelines recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and compliance with legal requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

West reported that 47 percent of federal Web sites met the W3C standards, while only 22 percent of federal sites met the stricter Section 508 guidelines.

John Kemp, chairman of the American Association of People with Disabilities, stressed that low compliance with such guidelines is a "fundamental violation of civil rights."

"This is our right to participate as citizens," Kemp said. "We welcome and respect inclusion, and we are a far, far cry from that point."

In regards to the 25 million non-English speaking citizens, West stated that only 13 percent of state and federal Web sites offered non-English language access in 2003.

"It's important that all Americans can take advantage of the wonderful services and information available on government sites," West said.

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