Federal sites rapped over accessibility problems

Sites not always useful for the disabled, groups claim

When the revamped Recovery.gov site went live this month, advocates for people with disabilities noticed problems with accessibility.

For Recovery.gov, the site's administrators fixed the problems quickly. “The Recovery.gov folks fixed, within days, the most serious of the accessibility issues I identified, which is great,” said Seth Grimes, an information technology consultant.

However, the episode highlights broader accessibility problems. As the federal government extends more services online, compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal Web sites to use technologies to make them accessible to disabled users, becomes increasingly important.

Section 508 requires sites to use things such as captioned images and videos and ways to identify on-screen buttons for the visually impaired, among other requirements. Screen readers — software that interprets text on a site or document and then reads it aloud, or in some cases, prints it in Braille — are also common adaptive tools.

Jim Thatcher, developer of one of the first IBM screen readers, has found problems on WhiteHouse.gov, Data.gov and MakingHomeAffordable.gov. He contacted the Obama administration, and some of the problems were fixed, but not all. In machine-detectable accessibility errors, the WhiteHouse.gov site went from an average of three errors per page in April to one per page in June, he said.

Thatcher has had similar accessibility concerns about other federal Web sites for many years. Although Web designers’ hearts might be in the right place, many find the Section 508 rules hard to decipher, he said.

“It is really sad and discouraging,” Thatcher said. “People do not understand Section 508.”

The Justice Department performed Section 508 self-evaluation surveys in 2001 and 2003. But a more recent overview of federal Web site accessibility is hard to come by, said Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium.

“While I believe that there has been significant progress in federal Web site accessibility, we still often hear of problems with federal Web sites,” Brewer said. “It would be helpful to have updated and accurate data on the extent of current issues.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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