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For Government, Accessibility Is ‘More Than Just a Compliance Game’

Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a day intended to start the conversation about digital access and inclusion for people worldwide with disabilities. So, what should government agencies know about the road ahead?

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May 18 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a day intended to start the conversation about digital access and inclusion for the more than 1 billion people worldwide with disabilities.

Government agencies can provide better service to a wider range of people by focusing on the accessibility of digital products and services. And yet, according to research previously reported on by Government Technology, people with disabilities — who make up approximately one-fourth of the U.S. population — cite frequent barriers on government websites that hinder the accessibility of receiving important services.

Andrew Nielson, director of the Government-wide IT Accessibility Program in the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)’s Office of Government-wide Policy, explained via email that improving the accessibility of government services is part of the GSA’s larger mission.

GSA’s mandate is to provide government agencies with technical assistance to meet Section 508 requirements, which is achieved in part through the existence and maintenance of

Nielson believes there are several primary challenges for this population to access digital products: the accessibility of web-based content, forms, documents and the user experience at large in working with these products.

“A key element of improving accessibility is investing in policy, staff, skills, training and tools, to achieve and maintain a culture of accessibility,” Nielson said.

Government agencies need to develop greater understanding of accessibility among staff, he noted, adding that even among IT professionals, degree and certification programs do not always teach accessibility best practices.

“It’s also important for agency leaders to develop subject matter expertise, train staff, assign clear roles for accessibility within their organizations, and more,” he stated.


Technology has become a central part of most workplaces, and while Nielson acknowledges that such advancements can foster greater accessibility, they can also create their own challenges.

From office productivity applications to collaboration platforms, built-in technology tools may not provide the means to create accessible content.

On the other hand, some tools are advancing positively. One example is the advances in tech-driven tools for American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation that could help improve communications with non-ASL speakers.

This is also the case in Colorado, where health officials are using virtual reality to better serve individuals with disabilities, and in Tampa, Fla., where a mapping initiative has simplified access to city facilities for those with low or no vision. Similarly, a digital resource directory in San Francisco will help people with different abilities access services, both from the government and other organizations.

As cities advance in tech sophistication, experts argue that accessibility must be considered or the advances will leave some populations behind.

“You can’t be a smart city if you’re not also a smart and accessible city,” Karen Tamley, former commissioner of the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and CEO of Access Living, previously told Government Technology.


The curb cut effect is the idea that, through the effort to improve accessibility for people with disabilities, accessibility is improved for all people.

“There’s a lot of overlap between supporting the needs of this community and really good UX practice,” said Library of Congress digital accessibility architect Rachael Bradley Montgomery during the 2022 Government UX Summit.

The name of this effect comes from the shift in curb design practices, replacing those with sharp angles with curbs that have ramps and pads. Although this was originally done in an effort to support people with disabilities, it was found to have a positive impact for all people — from older adults to people with baby strollers and beyond.

Mark Pound is the founder and CEO of a company called curbcutOS, which is named for this effect, aiming to have a similar impact on people with different abilities in the digital world. Pound has also experienced living with disabilities himself and has seen firsthand some of the obstacles this population faces.

“I think government needs to realize it’s more than just a compliance game,” he said.

The company works with both public-sector agencies and private companies of all sizes to help address digital assets, from websites to mobile applications.

Pound believes that government agencies should consider that disabilities come in a variety of different forms — some visible and some invisible.

Governments should start by ensuring compliance to existing guidelines and standards such as Section 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which cover a range of accessibility considerations for people with visual, auditory, motor, cognitive and neurological disabilities.

Beyond compliance, making content accessible to everyone regardless of abilities can be achieved through comprehensive testing — automated and manual and functional — for “complete coverage,” Pound said.

Web evaluation tools exist to address common issues. Manual testing should include assistive technology. Issues found during this testing must be remediated, which can involve changes at the design or programming level. In addition, supplemental content like downloadable documents and forms must also be accessible.

This is not a one-time process, but an ongoing one.

“Including disabilities in design personas can help inform user testing, and involving people with disabilities directly in user testing can help agencies consider the needs of individuals with disabilities,” Nielson said.

As websites evolve, it is important that agencies ensure that all new content added to the website meets accessibility standards, and regular testing and remediation should be conducted. Staying on an accessibility maintenance program is also cheaper for organizations, he argued. And it opens the digital world’s doors to a much wider audience.

“We don’t even like to think of it as a cost, because it’s an investment,” he said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.