Falling Between the Cracks Falling Between the Cracks Design Department

not described by text. For example, a Web page about city parks might show a park is well suited for soccer by displaying a photo of a soccer game held there. How is a visually impaired person supposed to receive that visual communication? Florance said Austin's forthcoming content management system will ensure all graphics and photos on the site have metadata, which gives the reader software hidden, readable text describing the images.

Florance said the content management system's ability to flag content with potential accessibility issues is critical. Portal content comes from numerous employees working in the city's 30 agencies, and it can be difficult to ensure all the diversely sourced material is ADA compliant. For example, an Austin agency once posted a PDF document relevant to blind people that, for some reason, had been converted from Microsoft Word to a JPEG image before being converted to a PDF. Reader software can't decipher JPEGs or PDFs of JPEGs. This led to hours of labor creating a new document in Microsoft Word for PDF conversion, said Florance.

Government portal designers also must keep colorblind people in mind. For instance, a table with a light red or green background could be hard for these citizens to read, said Florance.

As video streaming becomes the rage among government portal designers, Web teams must establish strategies for incorporating readable text with those videos for people with hearing disabilities. For streaming City Council meetings, Austin plans to include a link to the meeting transcript. The city uses a California-based transcription service for transcribing the council meetings that are broadcast on Austin's local cable TV channel. Florance said the city also is considering a mechanism for putting those transcripts into on-screen subtitles.

"We understand there are going to be challenges people with disabilities face when accessing the page," Florance said. "We don't want to create any kinds of extra barriers."

Automation Obstacles

While many bid good riddance to government's "human touch," some individuals with disabilities, especially cognitive disabilities, rely on it. The Indiana ACLU recently filed a lawsuit against the Indiana FSSA. The ACLU contends that the agency's automated system kicks citizens off food stamps for noncompliance without explicitly telling them why they are noncompliant. The ACLU also insists the automated system disenfranchises the disabled by removing their specially assigned caseworkers.

Gavin Rose, attorney for the ACLU of Indiana, said previously the caseworkers serving clients with disabilities could monitor those clients and jump to action if a necessary form wasn't filed.

"Dementia, schizophrenia and other mental [disorders] make it all but impossible to communicate with someone who doesn't already know about that [disorder] or doesn't know what's going on in the client's given situation," Rose said.

Mitchell Roob, secretary of the FSSA, dismisses as myth the idea that caseworkers monitored files and watched their clients' backs before the automation.

"It's a nice idea; I wish it had happened," Roob said. "I wish we operated the system really well, but we didn't. When I became the secretary, we were first in child deaths and last in Welfare to Work [a program designed to help welfare recipients transition to jobs]. Under any measure, we were an unmitigated disaster."

"We literally had caseworkers with cases of files containing 500 and 600 cases. In most instances, they didn't have any ability or time to help that disabled person," he said.

Before automation, the agency was plagued by inefficiencies and incompetent customer service, Roob recalled. The FSSA hasn't yet quantified how automating the caseworker process has improved that situation. The project is still in the pilot phase with only 52 of the state's 92 counties participating. The FSSA hopes to roll the project out completely by the end of 2008.

Roob recommends citizens who need specially assigned caseworkers visit

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.