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Web Accessibility: Why It Matters and What Governments Can Do About It (Industry Perspective)

More and more government services are going online, but if the website isn't accessible to people with disabilities, then millions of Americans are being excluded from vital civic services.

Unplug your mouse. Now, try to log into your website and use your keyboard to navigate — try to fill in a form or download a document. How did that go? If you were on one of thousands of state, county or city government websites that are not accessible, it was probably quite a challenge.

For reasons of practicality and efficiency, more and more government services are going online. But if the website is not accessible to people with disabilities — the country’s largest minority population — then millions of Americans are being excluded from vital civic services.

Why Web Accessibility Matters

Nearly 5 percent of the population is visually impaired, and more than 2 percent of Americans have severe limitations to their dexterity. One in six Americans has some level of hearing loss. Many of these people cannot access all the information a website offers without help, which ranges from relying on braille or screen readers to needing a color-blind-friendly palette. 

For those millions of Americans, plugging their mouse back in may not be an option. They rely on public websites to be able to work alongside their assistive technology. If it isn’t compatible, they cannot log onto the services you provide. The idea that a person with a disability couldn’t access a public building or space is unthinkable in 2016. Unfortunately our digital spaces are lagging behind.

Few Rules, Many Lawsuits

In 1998, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international standards organization of the Internet, published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines explained how a website should be coded and arranged to ensure it is accessible to persons with disabilities. In 2008, these were updated to keep up with technology and WCAG 2.0 continues to be the international standard for websites.

Concurrently, here in the United States in June 2001, Section 508 was added to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act. This rule specified requirements for accessibility of federal agency websites, but these rules are now commonly seen as outdated and lacking in 2016.

The target is moving as rules evolve. In July 2016 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) called for public comment on final Web accessibility rules for state and local websites. These rules may be released in the next two years. Confusion reigns as of time of writing.

In the meantime, lawsuits against state and local authorities continue unabated. The DOJ and the Office of Civil Rights use WCAG 2.0 as a standard, and in 2015 alone the DOJ took action against dozens of cities and counties across the country for Web accessibility violations, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to McLennan County, Texas.

Regulations may be years away. So what can state and local website managers, IT departments and administrators do to make their websites more accessible?

Clean, Simple Code

The first step to accessibility success is for designers and programmers to ensure clean, quality code. It should be W3C standards-compliant and use the tags and structures of each coding language for their intended purpose.

Many sites may have been created using WYSIWYG software or may have been rushed to completion. The result is excessive or noncompliant code. This can hinder efforts to go back and make websites more accessible, and may be noncompatible for accessibility readers and special software. Even the biggest websites may have bad code that is overlooked by forgiving Internet browsers, but is not compliant with assistive technology.

Making Forms Work

One of the most important functions of the modern government website is the ability to pull information from users via online forms. But if a form isn’t clear and clean on the back end, it may not work for someone with a disability.

Forms can be tricky. They may have to interact with a database or another form and require unforgiving pieces of code. See for yourself. Go to one of your online forms and try “tabbing” your way through (using the tab key to navigate to each box). You should be able to move from one box to the next in order and fill out the fields with a keyboard.

If you jump around, go backward or miss sections entirely, then a person with a disability may have to abandon your form and pick up the phone. Then, a public employee will have to handle the call, possibly create a hard copy and mail it to the user. A couple of bad lines of code could not only dissuade a person with disabilities from using a cheap and efficient tool, but it could also be wasting a department’s time and money.

Think Like a Website, Not a Newspaper

Web pages aren’t read like we read a book or article. It’s not linear — information lives across a swath of pages, and users create their own path depending on what they need. We also skim-read online and look at the whole page as opposed as reading it from left to right, top to bottom.

So to create an accessible site, one must approach a website’s content hierarchy as a website, not as a newspaper. Headers are particularly important in this case — websites are constructed using header tags in descending order to organize the information. A good analogy to use is thinking of a city aquarium website. Consider how one would try and find where your kid’s favorite fish is located:
•    Aquarium
     o    Fish
          •    Saltwater Fish
               o    Sharks
                   •    Tiger Shark Tank

We read and navigate websites like a bulleted list naturally, as do website readers and assistive technology, so it’s essential that website headers and page hierarchy are simply and correctly organized. If your website isn’t correctly arranged, assistive technology may struggle to guide a user in a logical fashion.

The First Step Is Ownership

There are many more facets of a website that must be assessed to ensure they are accessible to persons with disabilities. It takes time, and it may mean a financial investment. But most importantly, Web accessibility needs to be owned by many people across an organization.

To illustrate, think back 20 or 30 years and consider how your government managed making public physical spaces more accessible for people with disabilities. The construction and alteration of public buildings, and the additional renovations to the route of travel, took years to complete and are still a work in progress. Once old buildings were augmented, governments then had to ensure every new public building project thereafter was accessible. This seismic shift took many people, many hours and a more than a few dollars. It also took leadership. But we did it, and now people with disabilities can use public spaces across the country unimpeded.

The overhaul of public websites is no different. It has to become part of the plan and part of the culture throughout a government organization. This is the right thing to do.

There Is No Such Thing as Perfection

A 100 percent accessible website is a very rare thing on the Internet. There will always be facets of a page that may not be accessible to every person, no matter how much time and effort is spent overhauling a website. We teach programmers and developers to understand that a site can be 100 percent usable without being 100 percent accessible. The most important lesson to take on board is that Web accessibility is a process rather than a project.

It’s also important to note that it takes a village to make a website accessible and governments shouldn’t go it alone. There are a number of services and tools on the market that will monitor and manage website content to ensure old and new content is accessible.

Governments need to begin to incorporate Web accessibility into every level of planning, training, hierarchy and culture of their organization. It’s a case of continual quality improvement that will over time help more Americans log onto vital digital civic services.

Access to public online spaces is a right, not a privilege, and we all must continue to fight for those rights the best we can.

Kevin Rydberg is a senior digital accessibility consultant for Siteimprove’s Quality Assurance and Web Governance services, and has been working with public and private institutions for more than 15 years to help make their Web spaces more accessible.