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San Francisco Looks to Improve Accessibility Through Tech, Data

Across the city of San Francisco government, teams are working in collaborative ways to improve accessibility to government services and resources to better support people with disabilities.

Image shows sky-blue gradient background with many black-colored human sillhouettes of different shapes, including one person in a wheelchair in the center, representing inclusion and accessibility for all.
A collaborative approach across San Francisco government is helping better serve constituents with disabilities by improving accessibility of — and with — technology.

Government agencies are increasingly working to make digital services more inclusive for all constituents, focusing on online accessibility through a variety of tools.

Deborah Kaplan, deputy director of programmatic access within San Francisco Mayor’s Office on Disability (MOD), explained San Francisco takes a collaborative place with different agencies and jurisdictions working together.

For example, both the MOD and the San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging Services (DAS) complement one another in their work to better serve this population of city residents.

Kaplan says some of the major ways MOD is serving this population is by working with the ADA coordinators across different departments, providing assistance and ensuring consistency. This work includes playing an advisory role to both departments and to the Board of Supervisors with respect to compliance and accessibility policy and best practices.

One topic MOD advises other departments on is disability data. While the city uses data in a lot of different ways, such as planning for climate change-related issues with air quality data, gaps remain around data related to people with disabilities.

“There’s a lot of different ways that we help different parts of the city understand how to get data, how to understand it, and then what is available from the variety of data sources that the city pulls from,” Kaplan said.

Another example of data use in the city is that within the Human Resources Department, as the department seeks to collect better demographic data about employees with disabilities, Kaplan said, MOD advised about things like categories and terminology that should be used.

Another major initiative in the city is the DAS initiative to launch a new online resource directory specifically dedicated to helping people with disabilities find and connect to relevant services.

According to Cindy Kauffman, DAS deputy director of community services, the effort to launch such a tool started prior to COVID-19, at which point, other urgent needs of the community took priority. However, the pandemic also elevated the need for a current and updated online resource directory that would contrast from the PDF versions that DAS previously provided in that those quickly became outdated.

“It’s something that has been needed for a long, long time that everybody agreed on, finally coming to fruition,” Kauffman said, detailing that the directory’s creation is currently in progress.

Kauffman said Unite Us will be developing the directory, something the company has done before, though the company will be working to make it fit San Francisco’s community-specific needs.

The vision for the directory, Kauffman said, is to provide information not only about services provided by the government, but also those provided by community-based organizations relevant to the populations this department serves. The platform will allow for additional resources and information to be added as services change or become available.

The goal is for this directory to be available to the public by fall.

Once live, the platform will give officials insight through data about what resources people are selecting and whether there are gaps that need to be filled to continually improve the resource.

And for those without access to Internet-enabled devices, Kauffman said DAS will “always and forever” serve residents through its Benefits and Resources Hub, a service center that acts as a one-stop shop for individuals to get support to access services.

“It’s been asked for for so long; I just think it’s going to be a really valuable resource for the community,” she said.

As San Francisco continues to see and explore emerging technologies — like autonomous transportation — Kaplan noted that not all of them will be accessible for everyone.

Several AV pilots, regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, have launched within the city, and Kaplan explained that the vehicles may not be wheelchair accessible, communication with riders with vision impairments may be limited, and there may be safety concerns in the case of emergencies.

The Mayor’s Office on Disability will continue to advise on areas in which these innovations may not be safe and accessible to the population of people with disabilities in the community and advocate for improvements, Kaplan 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.