Agencies Improve Accessibility of Web-based Information

Enlightened development strategies remove obstacles for individuals with disabilities.

by / October 1, 2008

Most of us love e-government. We're discovering that in many cases, no one can serve us better than ourselves. Customer service expectations have less and less to do with human-to-human interaction and more to do with human-to-technology interaction. Automated back-office processes and tools enabling citizens to interact online with government have yielded revolutionary conveniences.

However, it's easy to forget that government's IT advances can create special challenges for people with disabilities. Sometimes programmers unintentionally design Web portals in ways that are difficult to decipher for software designed to read text aloud to visually impaired citizens. Also, how are the blind supposed to knows what graphics convey? Many state and local governments have ambitious video streaming initiatives connected to their portals. What good are those videos to the deaf? Some portal designers are strategizing ways to include readable text.

But IT obstacles for disabled citizens involve more than portals. In 2007, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) used IT to end its practice of assigning individual caseworkers to food stamp recipients. Any caseworker answering the phone now uses a centralized IT system to help all clients. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana insists citizens with disabilities often require interaction with caseworkers who are accustomed to dealing with their particular disabilities. Can IT be adjusted to address those exceptions?

Consulting firms specializing in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) help governments and businesses comply with that federal law. When governments modernize their technology infrastructures without taking the ADA into consideration, projects aimed at easing citizen burdens occasionally make those burdens heavier.


Common Oversights
Austin, Texas IT, workers frequently discover obstacles to accessing the city portal for disabled people. The Austin Department of Communications and Technology is redesigning its portal using an open source content management system called Plone. The agency can program Plone to prevent those obstacles to accessibility from entering the portal in the first place.

Problems are usually caused by code that wasn't written with screen reader software in mind, said Chris Florance, public information officer of Austin. The software reads Web text aloud for visually impaired people. Difficulties often involve the site's HTML code. For example, in the past, the city's Web team didn't always end each text paragraph's HTML code with a "closed tag," which tells the software that a paragraph has ended. Without the closed tag, the reader software spews out the text without the necessary breaks in speech, making it difficult for listeners to understand. Programmers should also pay extra attention to HTML when creating tables of text, said Florance.

"Let's say you have a table of cities and populations," he said. "If you're using good ADA-compliant HTML code, the reader software will read it as 'Kansas City, Mo. -- population 1 million; Jefferson, Mo. -- population 200,000; Austin, Texas -- population a million and a half.' But if the HTML was set up a different way, it might look OK on the page to a viewer, but the reader software might read it as 'Austin, Texas, Kansas City, Mo., Jefferson, Mo.,' and then it would start reading the populations. It could mess up the sequence."

Dynamic portals -- which combine several forms of programming content for creating text, graphics, video and interactive functions -- pose another accessibility challenge. When the portal combines these functions, the underlying code may be interconnected in ways that confuse the reader software. Simply put, the reader software can't parse the text code, which it's supposed to read, from other code that it should ignore. Remedies exist for this, said Matthew Esquibel, Austin's Web supervisor. For example, his team will program the text using XML, enabling the reader software to distinguish the text code from the rest.

Often city portals use photos and graphics to communicate messages

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

their local FSSA offices and develop relationships with caseworkers there.

"We have caseworkers in all of our county offices today. We haven't closed a one," Roob said.

Rose said the solution might not be that simple. He said he has a client in Indiana with severe nerve damage in her ears who visited an office when the phone option didn't work. The office was staffed with just two busy workers. It might be hard to develop a caseworker relationship in that environment, he said.

Roob pointed out that the FSSA has a few special divisions that disabled citizens could call for help instead of the agency's main line -- either the FSSA's Division of Disability and Rehabilitative Services or the Division of Mental Health and Addiction, depending on the particular disability.

Roob wasn't sure if the FSSA's automated system enables caseworkers to refer disabled citizens to these programs.

Andy Opsahl

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