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States Work to Make Digital Services Accessible for All

With a new requirement from the Department of Justice looming, state and local governments must make their digital services accessible for people with disabilities, but not all are starting from the same place.

Top of the capitol building in Washington, D.C., in dual colors communicating color blindness
Adobe Stock
You’re visually impaired and trying to file your taxes, using a screen reader to do so via your state’s website. But when you need to read a PDF form, suddenly it stops working.

Or you’re colorblind, and you’re on your local health department’s web page. You’d like to check out how well a new restaurant in your neighborhood scored, but the rating is color coded — you can’t tell the difference.

Or English is your second language, and you want to use an online state portal to apply for a license. There’s no option for translation, however, and some of it is just too difficult for you to decipher.

These are all examples of accessibility challenges with digital government services — three situations that people with disabilities regularly face while using government websites. They are also challenges that have become more urgent for governments to solve, owing to two main reasons. The first is that COVID-19 pushed more of life online, and it is often easier now to do business digitally than in person. Second, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a new final rule under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act in April. This requires all state and local governments to make digital services “readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.”

Accessibility is free if you design for it from the very beginning. Just bake it into the process.
This one-two punch, experts say, means there is now more momentum than ever before to make government digital services accessible. Indeed, the nation may be on the cusp of a historic transformation for government websites, one with the potential to make it easier for all constituents to do business with the public sector online.

But first, there is quite a bit of work to be done, and states and cities are not all starting from the same place.

“The accessibility of state and local government websites varies from state to state and from local jurisdiction to local jurisdiction,” said Stephanie M. Flynt, a public policy analyst with the National Disability Rights Network. “There’s just not really a uniformity between the varying websites and the varying government portals.”

It’s not that states and cities have deliberately chosen to lag behind in accessibility, Flynt said, but rather that accessibility for digital services is work that people — including public servants — don’t traditionally think about unless it directly affects them. In other words, if you don’t yourself have a disability, it can be easy to forget about designing new digital services with accessibility in mind.

Now, however, the federal government rule is requiring states and cities to think about digital accessibility while also giving them clearer guidance to use as a starting point for incorporating it into their services for years to come.


Flynt and other digital government accessibility experts all said total digital accessibility can be an intimidating goal to work toward. It’s been like that for years, especially for government. In doing this work, the public sector faces the usual set of obstacles — inertia, limited budgets and sometimes-lengthy procurement processes for new tech, among others.

In the simplest possible terms, it can be tough for government to even know where to start.

The goal is to make our content usable, accessible, consumable by anybody.
But the new final rule from the federal government provides a set of standards that can be used as guidance. This rule is directly connected to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which are exactly what their name implies — a set of guidelines for this work. They are published by the World Wide Web Consortium, which has been considered one of the primary international standard-setters for the Internet dating back to its founding nearly 30 years ago.

Those accessibility guidelines have been updated several times since they were first written in 1999, and they have regularly been cited as the standard for the accessibility that state and local governments would like to design into their digital services. But the new final rule from the Justice Department changes one very important thing: Whereas the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have long been aspirational, the new rule makes them a federal government requirement. It gives them some teeth.

But with the rule being only a month old at the time of this writing — and relatively complex, as it perhaps needs to be, given its import — there are many questions for state and local government technologists to sort through. Chief among them are what exactly needs to be done and by when.

The when is the simpler part. The short answer is between two and three years. Deadlines depend on a jurisdiction’s size, though. State and local governments serving fewer than 49,999 people have three years, while any governments larger than that have two.

And what they need to do is meet the minimum standards for the most recent update of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This means work such as making sure all images have alt text for screen readers, captioning any video content and ensuring that color isn’t the only visual means of conveying information on the sites.

Essentially, every piece of information on a government website must be accessible to everyone. The federal rule does make a few exceptions, including for things such as archived content, content posted by a third party and pre-existing social media posts.

Audrey Busch, executive director of the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs, called the new rule “a great step forward” and said that it creates both new clarity and new urgency around digital accessibility in government. Her organization has created free courses as well that can serve as a primer for entities tackling the challenge.

Those courses are open to both states and cities. While cities are also tasked with ensuring accessibility for their digital services in the years to come, experts said that it is state governments that are leading the way, in many cases providing resources and guidance to cities once they start making their own progress. As go the states, so too go their cities.

So with the new deadlines from the federal government now set and approaching, many states are accelerating work in this area, hiring full-time digital accessibility leaders and staff members. Still, as tends to typically be the case with digital transformation, what progress currently looks like varies greatly by jurisdiction.

person at a computer wearing headphones and using a screen reader and braille translator
For visually impaired users, government websites need to be accessible via screen readers and other assistive tools, like Braille translation.
Adobe Stock


In Pennsylvania, Bry Pardoe is the executive director of the Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience (CODE PA), the state’s in-house team that works to modernize digital state services. It’s also the agency under which digital accessibility work is now being done.

Pennsylvania has a full digital accessibility team, led by Chief Accessibility Officer Ellen Strom, who supervises nearly half a dozen full-time accessibility staffers, Pardoe said, and this group is key to Pennsylvania’s accessibility efforts. It was brought under CODE PA earlier this year.

“If we didn’t have an accessibility team, I’d be very fearful of how big this mountain would be,” Pardoe said.

If we didn’t have an accessibility team, I’d be very fearful of how big this mountain would be.
To scale that mountain, Pennsylvania has staffers dedicated to many of the key pillars for accomplishing the work. This includes one person who is focused on training, one on procurement and another on testing. Recently, the state also added someone who works on language accessibility and one who is dedicated entirely to testing accessibility within the state’s ongoing redesign of its outward-facing hub,

It’s all a big lift for Pennsylvania, which has 2,100 digital applications and 300 websites to bring together. Something that’s well underway is incorporating accessibility work into the development cycle for any digital project, meaning anything and everything new that CODE PA does must have accessibility considered from the start. This means more than just adding alt tags, but also looking closely at choices around font size, button size and even search engine optimization elements. It also means enabling translation for any language and writing government content in plain language that is easy for anyone to understand.

“What we’ve really been advocating in our office is that accessibility is free if you design for it from the very beginning,” Pardoe said. “Just bake it into the process.”

The baking metaphor looms large in Pennsylvania. Strom is fond of comparing accessibility work to making chocolate chip cookies — they turn out a whole lot better if the chips are in the cookies when you bake them, rather than thrown on top when the cookies are already done.

One advantage Pennsylvania also has is executive-level buy-in. Accessibility experts repeatedly said being a person with a disability makes you understand much better why it’s important — Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro happens to be colorblind.

“It’s going to take education, outreach, training and really making this a standard operating procedure for everything we are doing,” Pardoe said. “We’ll continue to do that in perpetuity.”

Texas, meanwhile, has also made quite a bit of progress in digital accessibility in recent years. The state has Marie Cohan working as its statewide digital accessibility leader.

Cohan has served in the role for nearly three years. Essentially, she supports people who are working on digital accessibility within all the state’s agencies and universities. This means she works with 130 people who are helping ensure digital accessibility in Texas government.

Texas’ Department of Information Resources has long had the statutory authority to create digital accessibility rules. What Cohan does is help the many public entities in the state comply.

She conducts quite a few trainings, many of which are focused on why this work is important and centered on the idea that accessible digital services benefit the state, too, not just residents with disabilities. Universities, for example, don’t want to lose enrollment because potential students struggle with their digital services. Cohan also helps her group with procurement.

She pointed to outreach as one of the biggest priorities for her within her role. She’s worked to foster community with the state’s 130 digital accessibility leads, doing things like holding weekly office hours, which she said average 20 attendees. She has also organized a statewide virtual coffee meetup, which started with 30 regular participants and has now more than doubled, averaging about 70.

“Sometimes,” Cohan said, “my work is just about listening.”

One asset for her personally that has been helpful is a multistate collective that has formed around digital accessibility, within which more than 20 states share ideas and information on how to get better at digital accessibility.

Ashley Bloom was appointed to be Massachusetts’ first-ever chief IT accessibility officer earlier this year, and she also takes part in the multistate collective. The newest of any of the digital accessibility leads interviewed here, Bloom said her goals include identifying what the state’s 11 secretariats are doing well, finding opportunities to increase those accessibility efforts and looking for what can be scaled throughout Massachusetts, aiming for a “consistent and aligned approach to the work.”

Bloom is also helping the state develop a new strategic plan around digital accessibility.

“We’re not just looking at the digital content itself,” Bloom said, “we’re looking at how that digital content is created, who’s creating that digital content and what they need to learn in terms of accessibility, what they need to do, and also incorporating people who benefit from this work.”

That last point is a crucial one. To accomplish it, Massachusetts is working to incorporate people who use assistive technologies or don’t speak English into its UX research. They are also looking to collaborate on this matter with their technology vendors.

“The goal is to make our content usable, accessible, consumable by anybody,” Bloom said. “It doesn’t matter who it is. I want someone to have a delightful experience and a pleasant journey as they’re interacting with state government digital services programs and activities.”

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.