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How Can Government Become More Accessible? (Contributed)

In addition to avoiding the cost of settling or litigating lawsuits, providing accessible documents and websites is simply the right thing to do to establish trust and goodwill with the public.

When city after city in Florida was hit by lawsuits for failing to provide accessible websites and electronic documents, many officials didn’t realize the magnitude. All told, over 200 municipalities (upwards of 75 percent of local governments in the state) were the target of a sophisticated legal campaign by a law firm representing disability advocates. In this form of “legal embezzlement,” law firms were running Web spiders to crawl municipal websites checking for non-accessible documents. Inevitably, they found materials that were out of compliance with accessibility laws and sent local governments demand letters to remedy the issue or face expensive litigation.

For local and state governments, the prospect of making their websites and electronic documents accessible can be a monumental task. In many jurisdictions, websites are the first point of contact for the public to access information, pay bills and manage benefits. They allow people to access thousands of documents spanning several decades, many of them running to hundreds of pages. When you factor in requirements for providing accessible documents in multiple formats like braille, large print and multiple languages (14 or more in some jurisdictions), the prospect of remediating non-compliant documents can be overwhelming.

Although document and website remediation can feel overwhelming, doing so is a requirement for many government agencies. Federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibit federal agencies and entities that receive federal assistance from discriminating against people with disabilities. Section 508 goes one step further, setting down standards for making electronic and information technology goods and services accessible. A host of state laws like Florida’s Sunshine Law further require municipal entities to provide access to public records. Additionally, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has established the primary international standard for accessibility on the Web and its WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0, published in 2008, provides comprehensive guidelines regarding how to make a website accessible, including the documents accessed through it.

In addition to avoiding the cost of settling or litigating lawsuits for accessibility violations, providing accessible documents is simply the right thing to do. As more boomers age, they face vision and hearing loss from underlying medical conditions. Veterans are another population that often requires accessible documents. For these populations, the ability to apply for benefits and pay bills hinges on their ability to access information, records and forms. Failing to provide accessible websites and the documents housed on them excludes the 15-20 percent of Americans who depend on these resources to manage their day-to-day lives. As governments exist to serve the people, creating a culture of inclusion is an important way to ensure all people are properly served.

A culture of inclusion allows for the provision of accessible resources that provide employment opportunities to people who would otherwise be excluded from the workforce. Moreover, accessibility promotes innovation. Many of the conveniences we now take for granted, like ramps, automatic doors and even audio books, were developed to make public spaces and media accessible to people with disabilities.

Those responsible for making a department or agency’s website and electronic documents accessible may be wondering where to begin. In general, public-facing documents posted online are a logical starting point. At the state level, these documents include DMV records, Medicaid and other health documents, and anything having to do with safety regulations. At the local level, tax bills, utility bills, letters and renewals are priorities.

Given the size and scope of materials requiring remediation, technology leaders should consider two critical guidelines when making their websites and e-documents more inclusive:

  1. Adopt the idea of serving the public inclusively across your entire organization.  
  2. Bake Web and document accessibility into everything you do. Make accessibility by design your guiding principle.
Making documents accessible in-house can be time consuming and costly, so you may need to find the right technology platform to do it in an automated manner. You also want to look for experts who can go beyond making PDFs accessible and offer accessible documents across multiple channels. While many tools exist for auto-tagging documents and further automating remediation, the process still requires people who understand accessibility requirements first hand and can test documents and websites to ensure compliance.

It is important to know what and who to consider when making websites and electronic documents accessible. The best place to start is to determine the target population. For example, departments serving veterans may be dealing with multiple disabilities — from vision and hearing loss to missing appendages and cognitive impairments — that require different solutions to access the information posted on the website. For departments dealing specifically with the hearing impaired, accessibility will need to be more straightforward and more targeted to the unique needs of this population.

Once the targeted audience has been identified, the next step is to address digital accessibility. At this point, determining how to accommodate the accessibility needs of the population you are serving comes into play. Additionally, staff needs to be trained on the importance of providing an inclusive website with accessible documents to understand that accessibility is something your agency or department can and must offer. Telling the public you serve that you don’t do accessibility isn’t an option if you’re going to comply with existing legislation and serve all those who live within your jurisdiction.

In 2015, lawsuits involving accessibility non-compliance at private firms numbered 2,000, not including Department of Justice prosecutions. By 2019, that number had climbed to well over 20,000. In today’s litigious climate, providing inclusive websites and accessible documents is a necessity. It’s also one of the best things you can do to establish trust and goodwill with the public.

Ernie Crawford is president/CEO and founder of Crawford Technologies and a digital document industry pioneer. One of only a small number of people worldwide with M-EDP (Master Electronic Document Professional) designation, Ernie has more than 30 years of senior marketing and management experience in the high-volume digital printing market.