The Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) is launching an online scanning program that should help state agencies improve access to public websites for people with disabilities.

Starting later this month, the DIR will use an automated process to review the top 150 pages of every state agency website. Once complete, reports on what pages and electronic documents are out of compliance with accessibility standards will be sent to agency accessibility coordinators. The coordinators will then work with content developers to correct the errors.

The DIR is using WorldSpace Sync from Deque Systems, which analyzes key portions of websites and provides details on what accessibility problems exist. The scans will occur on a monthly basis. Local government entities and state-funded educational institutions in Texas will also be able to use the technology in the future.

Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Many states have adopted some or all of the requirements for their own accessibility standards. Texas has its own accessibility policies based off of Section 508 and other best practices.

Jeff Kline, statewide electronic and information resources accessibility coordinator for the DIR, said the tool will enable users to discover intimate details on what accessibility problems exist on agency sites.

Agencies will have their own login to the program, but their representatives will only see their own data displayed on a dashboard. Kline, however, has access to the total aggregate number of errors that are detected from all agencies. He hopes the new scanning service will decrease the problems and make keeping tabs on accessibility issues easier.

While tools to determine website accessibility are fairly common, Kline said he believes the DIR’s approach to the issue is novel. He said he isn’t aware of any state that is actually doing a partial scan of all state agency websites at a sample level.

“These tools are pretty scalable, and when you look at the number of pages agencies have, it runs from the hundreds to the millions,” Kline said. “It’s difficult to check every page manually for accessibility errors. These tools automate the checking process.”

DIR’s use of WorldSpace Sync is a pilot project. The service is provided through a cooperative contract with Knowbility, Inc., an accessibility services vendor based in Austin, Texas. Department representatives expect the value of the contract will be under $50,000 based on the page counts and administrative time for Deque to set up the scans and reports for state agencies.

Widespread Problem

Web accessibility is a big issue, both in the public and private sectors, according to Kline. While Section 508 has been on the books since 1998, he said progress has been slow because technology keeps changing so fast that it’s difficult for organizations to keep up.

The lack of emphasis placed on the issue also concerns Kline.

“It’s a complex problem with a lot of moving parts, and I think in general, most organizations in the private and public sectors don’t really understand all those moving parts and how they fit together and what the impacts are,” Kline said.

Preety Kumar, CEO of Deque Systems, agreed. She added that even if governments are making an organizational commitment to accessibility, items such as embedded apps and constant “rapid-fire” updates to content are making accessibility more of a challenge.

“We have a big issue with third-party applications, and all these widgets that [are being] included in websites,” Kumar said. Integration of third-party apps are a big problem as well because you don’t own the source code.”

Without ownership of the code, accessibility errors are less likely to be remediated. Because Texas agencies don’t have jurisdiction over third-party apps, they won’t be scanning for errors on those items. Kline said the focus will remain on the Web pages, as agency staff can correct those errors.

Kline’s also fond of WorldSpace Sync’s ability to scan PDF files. He explained that because the format is so popular for archiving documents, a lot of time pages get converted to PDF without any accessibility criteria. While some older documents might not be able to be fixed, when an error is found, some of the more recent files can be re-encoded to meet accessibility standards.

Remediation of the errors uncovered by monthly scanning will be handled by each individual agency. DIR won’t dictate what gets fixed and when, but Kline said the plan is that any accessibility issue should be fixed within a certain amount of time, so the error rate for an agency drops in the following monthly scans.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.