(TNS) — A state law intended to increase accessibility to public records online has had exactly the opposite effect. California departments and agencies are taking down documents because they can’t make them accessible to people with disabilities, at least not quickly and affordably. Government committed to transparency must do better.
Things started innocuously enough. In 2015, the state auditor issued a report on how well people with disabilities could access information on state websites. It was far from glowing.
“Although the violations of web accessibility standards ranged in severity, some of them are so severe that elements of the departments’ websites were completely inaccessible to users with disabilities,” the auditor wrote.
Too many state sites weren’t set up to accommodate assistive technology. Someone with impaired vision should be able to use a screen magnifier or audible screen reader. Someone with limited motor skills that prevent using a mouse should be able to use keyboard shortcuts or other hardware.
The auditor therefore recommended that the Legislature require all state websites comply with accessibility standards. The Legislature did just that in 2017, giving state agencies two years to come into compliance.
It’s two years later, and agencies have struggled to meet accessibility standards. Revising webpages and documents proved expensive and time consuming. Departments spent millions trying to meet the deadline and still came up short. That was especially true for departments that had decades of archived reports and other material. Some of it had been produced on typewriters originally and only later scanned. Digital readers struggle with such content.
So, with the deadline upon them, departments did the only thing they could do to meet the letter of the law. If their content couldn’t meet accessibility standards online, it wouldn’t be online. As the Sacramento Bee recently reported, more than 2 million state documents on everything from wildfires to water resources have disappeared from the Internet as a result.
That sort of legalistic decision offends common sense. Every government body should strive for accessibility for all. But universal access needs to be a goal with practical limitations. It shouldn’t be a litmus test that justifies denying everyone access to important information.
Consider just one example. Cal Fire removed historical reports full of fire statistics prior to 2014 and going back decades. Those “Redbooks” were crucial resources for reporters and all Californians who sought to put devastating wildfires into historic context. The fact that some people cannot yet review them online shouldn’t mean no one can access them without traveling to Cal Fire’s offices.
It would be wonderful if affordable technology made it easy to quickly upgrade every digital record. It does not. The Legislature erred making the law unbendingly retroactive and setting a short timeline. Even the best intentions can go awry.
Departments have no excuse not to make their sites and reports accessible going forward and to prioritize specific documents sought by anyone with disabilities. But unless lawmakers are willing to allocate millions — maybe billions — to a digital overhaul, ensuring that every Californian can access every document equally isn’t feasible. Lawmakers next year should fix the law so that the state can work toward long-term transformation without removing public records.
©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.