Gov 2.0: Transparency without accessibility?

Despite progress, advocates say some high-profile federal Web sites still fail to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

When a redesigned Recovery.gov Web site was unveiled last month to track the distribution of stimulus dollars, it was touted as another example of the Obama administration’s push for greater transparency. But the technology and design of the site left one segment of the population less than satisfied.

Advocates for people with disabilities found a number of accessibility flaws on the site that jumbled the spending data or otherwise put it beyond the reach of people using screen readers and other assistive devices.

“It is unfortunate that Recovery.gov, in its technical implementation, fails to meet longstanding, widely understood accessibility requirements,” wrote Seth Grimes, an information technology consultant, in a review of the revamped Web site.

The site's administrators fixed the problems within days, Grimes said. But he is concerned that other defects might appear when features are added or updated.

Experts have noted ongoing, widespread accessibility glitches at federal Web sites such as WhiteHouse.gov, Data.gov and even Disability.gov.

As agencies move more services online to improve transparency and take advantage of Web 2.0 features for greater interaction with the public, access for people with disabilities is becoming a more prominent concern, many experts say. However, they add that the increased attention has not led to dramatic improvements in accessibility.

“This administration is trying to use new technologies,” said Sharron Rush, executive director of Knowbility, a nonprofit accessibility solutions group in Austin, Texas. “In the rush to implement Web 2.0, accessibility tends to get pushed back on the priority list.”

However, because President Barack Obama has touted transparency and open government, advocates for people with disabilities are hopeful that sites will improve, said Jim Thatcher, a consultant and developer of one of the first screen readers. “I care about this administration, and I think their Web sites should be the best for accessibility,” he said.

According to the Census Bureau, about 18 percent of the U.S. population has some level of disability in sight, hearing, cognition, medical condition or mobility, and 12 percent of the total population has a severe disability.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 governs the accessibility of federal Web sites, and amendments added in 1998 greatly strengthened it. Under the rules, sites must be compatible with assistive technologies for people with disabilities, including screen readers that read words aloud or print them in Braille.

To comply with Section 508, federal Web sites must have features such as captioning for all photos and videos; specific formats for charts of data; and alternative commands for Go and Search, among others.

Another update to the law is expected soon. In September 2006, the U.S. Access Board’s Telecommunications and Electronic and IT Advisory Committee began meeting to consider updates to Section 508. The committee issued recommendations in April 2008, and the board is expected to release proposed new rules soon.

Focusing on compliance

Given the government’s emphasis on online communications, the National Federation of the Blind has made federal Web site accessibility a high priority this year, said Chris Danielsen, the organization’s director of public relations. In six months, the federation has filed administrative complaints about inaccessible Web sites against the Social Security Administration, Small Business Administration and Education Department for its involvement with USALearns.org.

“We are being more aggressive,” Danielsen said. “We are focusing on compliance.”

The Justice Department is responsible for monitoring agencies’ compliance with Section 508, but its most recent report was published in 2001. That year, it asked agencies to evaluate their 20 most popular Web pages and released a summary of the results. It states: “In reviewing the data regarding specific Web pages, we found that federal agency Web pages are generally accessible but still have a number of problems that interfere with accessibility.”

The report recommends more guidance, better communication and increased coordination with small vendors to solve specific problems.

But advocates for people with disabilities say they’d like to see a more recent progress report. “It would be helpful to have updated and accurate data on the extent of current issues,” said Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, which has developed voluntary accessibility standards for Web sites.

Although most experts agree that federal Web sites generally conform to Section 508, they point to noticeable gaps. Thatcher said he has notified federal authorities about accessibility problems at Recovery.gov, WhiteHouse.gov, Data.gov and MakingHomeAffordable.gov.

Some of the problems were fixed, but not all. For example, WhiteHouse.gov went from an average of three errors per page in April to one per page in June, he said.

Beyond Section 508

Unlike their federal counterparts, state and local agencies have no uniform approach for ensuring that Web sites are accessible, which has made it difficult for vendors to produce standardized compliance products, Brewer said.

“Some states use Section 508; some have a mix of standards,” she said. “We are very eager to see harmonization of standards so that Web developers and tool developers have a common set of standards to build to.”

However, experts disagree about whether Section 508 is the answer. “People say, ‘Of course we can apply Section 508,’ but in practice they cannot do it,” Thatcher said. “People don’t understand Section 508.”

Jared Smith, associate director of nonprofit accessibility organization WebAIM at Utah State University, considers Section 508 to be a minimal standard. “To me, there is no excuse for not meeting it,” he said.

He encourages developers to go beyond it and address a broader set of issues, such as readability, the user experience and universal design. By doing so, sites would also serve the general population better, he said.

“There is a difference between compliance and accessibility,” Smith said. “A Web site can be compliant but [in practice] be inaccessible…. Accessibility is more complex and dynamic.”

Although Smith said he believes more technical rules are not the answer, Brewer said they are helpful in some cases. For example, regulations that specify a technical standard for color contrast would be more effective in helping people with color blindness than a general statement, she said. About 8 percent of the male population has some degree of color blindness, which affects how people perceive colors and contrasts.

Federal Web sites saw a jump in accessibility after IT standards were added to Section 508 in 2000, and experts hope to see another leap forward after the law is updated with the latest recommendations from the U.S. Access Board.

Meanwhile, Rush said she and others are meeting with members of the Obama administration and agency officials to move forward in applying accessibility principles to Web 2.0 technologies.

“The Obama administration is saying the right things privately,” Rush said. “I would like to see them take a leadership position on this and have the federal government be a real exemplar of accessibility.”

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