The new WhiteHouse.gov accessibility statement proves that the Biden administration is committed to making its website usable for people of all abilities, and is instructive for state and local government as well.
With President Biden's inauguration, the WhiteHouse.gov team launched a new website and immediately made a statement.
A noticeable and well-received feature of the new site — missing from the previous administration’s — is that it once again has an accessibility statement linked in the footer of every page, a best practice that demonstrates an early indication that this administration is committed to serving all Americans of all abilities.
And this is clearly just the beginning. The White House website team will continue to build a site that is accessible and usable by citizens with disabilities who may use assistive technology, or anyone with situational or temporary disabilities that make it harder to use the website.
The Biden administration isn’t just aiming for compliance with the current requirements of the recently refreshed Section 508 guidelines put forward by the U.S. General Services Administration, but going the full extent to align with WCAG 2.1 AA — the newest W3C recommendation and the standard beginning to be adopted by governments worldwide.
While this is the beginning of a continuous journey to broader inclusion, it’s an example of proactive digital accessibility leadership — a practice government leaders at every level must begin to follow.
For the White House team — and for all of us working to create digital government services that are usable by the greatest number of people — there are guidelines to help.
For public-sector digital teams looking to include a robust accessibility statement on their websites, start with the advice of expert Denis Boudreau, who summarized the four essential elements of an accessibility statement:
Accessibility expert Karl Groves also outlined a list that adds “What are you doing to support and improve accessibility?” as an important element.
Lainey Feingold, a well-respected legal accessibility expert, has suggested that an ideal accessibility statement would also include references to an organization’s accessibility policies and include information about other accessibility services. Web accessibility firm Microassist developed a useful checklist for getting started.
The W3C has an accessibility statement generator which adds in sections for technical information that might help a user better navigate the site.
The accessibility statement page, perhaps more than any other, should be kept current and time-stamped so people know they are accessing accurate, up-to-date information about accessible digital services.
While the newly released WhiteHouse.gov accessibility statement is a laudable first step, it’s understood to be a work in progress. Everyone working on digital products and projects for public services must continuously look for opportunities to make them even more inclusive and accessible.
Fortunately, the White House statement specifically invites comments on ways to improve.
In this spirit of open, accessible public engagement, here are recommendations for how the WhiteHouse.com team can continue to build on its digital accessibility efforts, which can also be applied to many state and local government sites to help make services as accessible as possible for all citizens.
1. Expand feedback options
To make it easier for people to flag issues with the site or to give feedback, provide more options to get in touch and engage.
There are currently several phone numbers listed on WhiteHouse.gov (including some for people with hearing loss), but a Web form, email address, GitHub repo and an accessibility-specific Twitter account should be added to allow users to digitally submit ways to improve the site.
Additionally, digital feedback options can capture browser and operating system information and allow people to upload screenshots, which makes debugging easier. Email, GitHub and Twitter can be used to gather information into a common issue queue to manage feedback and make sure that issues are identified and publicly fixed in a timely manner.
2. Adopt the U.S. Web Design System framework
Currently, the WhiteHouse.gov website is designed using a custom framework, whereas the site should be built on the United States Web Design System (USWDS), which has been extensively tested for accessibility best practices.
By adopting the USWDS as its design framework, the WhiteHouse.gov development team would integrate itself into the accessibility work the broader federal government design community is building. It would also emphasize that the White House supports federal customer experience efforts around a unified U.S. government digital experience.
3. Toward a more perfectly documented union
An important question to ask and address is, will the WhiteHouse.gov team continue to use PDF files? Or, following the model that the U.K. Government Digital Service recommends, will the White House take a firmer stance?
We agree with and support GOV.UK’s assessment and treatment of government website PDF usage:
GOV.UK exists to make government services and information as easy as possible to find and use.
For that reason, we're not huge fans of PDFs on GOV.UK.
Compared with HTML content, information published in a PDF is harder to find, use and maintain. More importantly, unless created with sufficient care, PDFs can often be bad for accessibility and rarely comply with open standards.
If PDFs will be used, is there a plan for making them accessible, or providing the information in an additional accessible format? Will large-print versions be made available, or only on request? These are also questions that should be addressed in a robust accessibility statement.
4. Account for archives
Recognizing that accessibility is a journey that never ends, it’s important to acknowledge that with the diversity of disabilities and the constantly evolving sets of communication tools, barriers are inevitable.
For example, if users navigate to archived pages of the website, they will likely find them less accessible than the current pages that are being brought up to an improved standard. Legacy files and videos may also be found lacking in accessibility.
If there is published content that isn’t accessible but is still being served up to people, the statement can identify it, and explain if there is a process for requesting that the material be provided in an accessible format.
5. Open accessibility
Accessibility and transparency are closely linked. There is an opportunity here to provide visibility into how WhiteHouse.gov is built, which can promote better understanding and usability for everyone.
For example, the White House should explain that the site is built with WordPress technology, and that they are following the accessibility best practices defined by the WordPress community. This would also include the associated WordPress plugins supporting the site, especially the accessibility-focused one that allows users to switch between high/low contrast, as well as change the font size.
It would also be important to know what testing process is used internally by the WhiteHouse.gov team. Are automated tools used? Are new features tested with people who have lived experience with disability? Does the team test for keyboard-only users? Has anyone checked what happens to text if someone zooms in their browser to enlarge to 300 percent?
Explaining the technology and testing practices gives people an opportunity to better understand and assess holistically — and even learn from — the WhiteHouse.gov team's technical approach to accessibility.
6. Address the broader White House accessibility experience
The accessibility statement should be expanded to provide users with information about the accessibility features of the White House itself, not just the website.
For example, when White House tours are available again, where will visitors go to find out if there is an accessible washroom?
Thinking about all aspects of services — both digital and physical — and bringing attention to them will help government agencies think and act more holistically about the overall accessible experience.
It’s highly encouraging that the new Biden administration is immediately emphasizing the importance of digital accessibility. There appears to be a legitimate commitment from the WhiteHouse.gov team to meet the needs of all people.
The Web team behind the White House site — like all of us who are working to build accessible government digital services — has a significant challenge ahead, but an equally significant obligation to do the hard work and always be improving. The suggestions here for improving the federal website can generally be applied to state and local governments looking to ensure that all citizens can interact with government.
The dawn of the people’s government website is upon us.
Mike Gifford is a senior strategist at CivicActions and the previous CEO of OpenConcept Consulting. He is a Drupal Core Accessibility Maintainer and founder of A11yYOW (Ottawa's Digital Accessibility Meetup).
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