IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Accessibility Gaps in Gov Tech: Advice from a Blind Advocate

Local governments are increasingly using technology such as kiosks, chatbots and online forms to streamline services, but are these tools accessible to everyone? Data reveals critical gaps that may have simple fixes.

A person with blindness uses a computer with a Braille display.
Automation is rapidly transforming the way governments operate, promising efficiency and convenience. But data reveals that in some cases, the tech creates gaps in accessibility for those with disabilities.

The Department of Justice's recent ruling mandating digital accessibility for state and local government websites underscores the urgency of the need for cities to prioritize inclusivity in their technological advancements.

To understand these challenges and explore potential solutions, Government Technology spoke with Tony Stephens, assistant vice president of communication for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), to shed light on the lived experiences of people with disabilities in the digital age.


A recent AFB study, Barriers to Digital Inclusion 2, reveals that kiosks in particular present a multitude of digital barriers for people with disabilities.

The study had 20 all-blind or low-vision participants fill out daily diaries over a 10-day period to record barriers they encountered.

The results: 44 percent of the time a person with a vision disability interacts with a kiosk, they experience some kind of barrier. The problem is that often the devices aren’t set up to be compatible with assistive technologies.

Stephens said he’s personally experienced issues with kiosks oriented toward visual design, lacking tags and underlying programming that would help an accessibility tool access the information on the screen. Some don’t have built-in speakers or the option to plug in headphones to be navigated without sight.

“Kiosks are easily made accessible. They’re oftentimes iPads or other touchscreen displays that are maybe running Android, and the back-end operating system already has built-in accessibility,” said Stephens.

It's frustrating, he said, when apps on the devices aren't compatible with those features.

“There’s no reason other than the fact that people are hiring vendors that create these applications for them that just aren’t up to speed on accessibility and just don’t build it in,” he said. “They’d rather hit the customer with something flashy, 'Look how cool this looks,' versus, 'Can this help every one of the potential people we come in contact with?'”


When the city of Somerville, Mass., polled residents about how they use the city’s ADA online complaint form as part of an ADA Community Survey, the results were staggering.

Despite the fact that a majority (68 percent) of survey takers identified as a person with a disability or had a close relationship with someone who has a disability, nearly 80 percent responded that they did not know who to contact in the city if they had an ADA complaint. The same amount said they didn't know the city has an ADA complaint form on its website.

There were many reasons respondents said they hadn't filed ADA complaints; the most common was that they weren’t sure how to file one, followed by the concern that they wouldn’t be taken seriously.

The survey also revealed respondents who had filed an ADA complaint hadn’t used the official ADA complaint channel, instead turning to other city resources like 311 or the mayor's office.

According to Stephens, there are many situations in which an ADA complaint process itself isn’t accessible, a problem that he said essentially is “locking the front door for a part of the population,” to advocate for what they need.

“My hope is [the process] is as streamlined as possible and barrier free as possible for people to complain about barriers,” said Stephens about all government agencies, adding that the best way to do that is to ensure advocacy groups have a voice in the process.

An effective ADA complaint portal, he said, is one that is well publicized, is included clearly on the home page and is fast to complete.

“If it takes a lot of time, sometimes people just throw in the towel and don’t finish the work,” said Stephens.


Chatbots are becoming increasingly common in state, city and county governments. While many agencies are drawn to them to streamline customer service and provide 24/7 support, they can create issues for people who rely on assistive technologies like screen readers.

“They can create a lot of hiccups — if it’s constantly trying to interact with you, it might be interrupting your screen reader,” said Stephens. “The broader issue overall with them is that oftentimes, they’re put in as a dynamic part of the page, and that can interrupt the screen reader’s experience and create some headaches.”

Stephens went on to emphasize that the situation can become even more problematic when chatbots replace traditional customer service phone lines. For those who are unable to navigate a chatbot due to its inaccessible design, the loss of a direct line to a human representative can leave them feeling frustrated and unheard.


While the transition to digital services presents challenges for people with disabilities, emerging technologies like AI also hold immense potential for empowerment.

“AI can really augment our sensory loss and really make us even more competitive,” he said. “My experience as someone who is blind personally: We’ll do twice as much work to keep up with everybody, so that builds up a certain muscle within our spirit. If we’re unleashed with the potential that AI could have for sensory loss, that’s a strong spirit that has been formed.”
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.