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Accessibility Barriers Remain on Government Websites

One-quarter of adults in the United States have some kind of disability. Are government agencies doing enough to serve their citizens equally — and ensure their safety in emergency situations?

The tip of a cane for the blind resting on the ground in front of someone's feet.
Like many parents, Baltimore-area resident Tony Stephens wants to know how his kids are doing in school. But unlike most of his peers, checking on his son’s grades isn’t as simple as logging onto a website.

Stephens was born legally blind and lost the remainder of his sight in his teenage years. As the father of two sighted boys, he uses screen-reading software to access the web. However, it doesn’t work if he encounters a website that wasn’t programmed to be compatible with assistive technology.

“I couldn’t check my kids' grades and figure out what homework they were missing,” said Stephens, acting director of communications for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). “Every other parent could stay on top of their kid, but I was struggling to keep up with my kids just to make sure they’re not falling behind.”

That’s just one example of the barriers Stephens and many others with disabilities face in the digital world on websites operated by government entities. According to AFB’s 2023 Barriers to Digital Inclusion report, 21 percent of survey respondents experienced some kind of a barrier on public or government websites at least once a day, while 28 percent experienced a barrier with a public or government mobile app once a day. Frequent barriers on government websites can limit users from accessing important services such as emergency information, public transit schedules and even housing and benefits resources.

Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act requires state and local governments to ensure their communications are effectively equal between people with disabilities and others. A website with inaccessible features can limit the ability of people with disabilities to access public programs, services and announcements, violating the law.

May 18 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, an initiative to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four adults in the United States has some type of disability. The CDC conducts an annual Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, interviewing more than 400,000 adults by phone. The survey, which is the largest continuously conducted health survey system in the world, asks several questions about disabilities to provide data about residency, education, age and income levels.

People who are blind need alternative text descriptions for images, while those who are deaf or hard of hearing need captioning or sign language interpreters in place of audio content and cues. People with mobility impairments may need adaptive hardware to help them navigate their devices, while those with cognitive or learning disabilities or impairments perform best with an uncluttered screen and the use of plain language.

A 'Nightmare Loop' of Inaccessibility

Chris Danielsen's experience as a totally blind man accessing digital government services is often frustrating.

“For most of your readers, magnify the experience of the frustration you normally experience with government and increase it by like five or 10 times the magnitude, and you’ll have an idea of what we’re dealing with,” Danielsen, the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, told Government Technology.

Danielsen described recently visiting his local department of motor vehicles to renew his identification card, only to encounter a check-in kiosk that wasn’t made accessible for blind people. He’s also been unable to contribute his opinion on public comment portals and frequently experiences issues processing payments online with his assistive technology. As some government agencies move to adopt message-based, AI customer service channels, the problem compounds.

“You can find yourself in this nightmare loop where you try to deal with it on their website, and you can’t do that,” said Danielsen. “So, then you try to call them, and you can’t get in touch with an actual human being, and you just go round and round until you’re exhausted. At the end of the day, you’re just emotionally wrung out, and you’re just like, ‘I haven’t accomplished anything that I set out to do because I’m running into all these barriers.’"

The consequences of inaccessibility can be severe.

“We’ve been involved in litigation with some states where in certain situations, because a government entity has a website that you need to interact with and fill out forms on to access benefits, and blind people have literally lost benefits that they’re entitled to because of inaccessibility,” added Danielsen.

In another case, Stephens referenced a time in which he was working with the American Council of the Blind, and had to help a Georgia resident find evacuation transportation during a hurricane because the county government posted evacuation shuttle information on a PDF file that was inaccessible by screen-reading software.

“She was basically stranded,” said Stephens. “We had to try to find somebody to get her out of harm’s way as a hurricane was barreling up the East Coast. You hate to think that you have to fix things rather than have them work right out of the gate, especially when there’s things like someone’s life at stake as a hurricane is barreling down on them.”

Barriers to emergency messaging are common in the deaf or hard of hearing community as well. Brianne Burger, the advanced learning director for the nonprofit Deaf in Government, said there’s a disparity in how important information is relayed to those with a hearing disability, especially during live video press conferences. As American Sign Language is the first language for many deaf people, Burger stressed the importance of having more video content available with closed captioning and messaging delivered through ASL. She also said it's critical to carefully vet interpreters.

“It does suddenly happen where their interpreter is not a qualified interpreter to be on stage during a press conference, and you can tell by the interpreter’s behavior that they’re kind of muddling through things,” Burger told Government Technology through an interpreter. “For a deaf individual, we might look at it and say, ‘Who is that person? I don’t really understand what’s going on.’ There needs to be a little bit more of a filter and screening process from the government agency to make sure that they are qualified and a licensed, certified sign language interpreter.”

Burger added that it's critical for governments to adopt text-to-911.

“If people are not able to speak, they have the opportunity to text 911, and emergency personnel can be dispatched to the scene,” said Burger, who added that its been a slow process to get all governments on board with the system.

Inclusion Starts at the Beginning

Ultimately, disability advocates want local and state government agencies to know that new technology has made accessibility more within reach than ever.

“Theoretically, digital material of any kind can be what we call ‘born accessible.' In another words, it can be created in a way that’s fully accessible from the outset,” said Danielsen. “In the relatively rare circumstance where that is the case, blind people love it. We love doing stuff online, because when we had to deal with printed material and things like that, that was a barrier to us.”

Stephens added that it's critical government agencies keep accessibility a priority from the start.

“Just make sure that your procurement officers are making sure that vendors that are developing the site are really proficient, and that you’re getting usability testing by not just people who are blind, but to members of your community that might be underrepresented,” said Stephens. “Everyone is a winner, it shows good use of taxpayer dollars, and you’re making your community inclusive, at least online.”

This article was originally published by Government Technology, a sister news site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic LLC.

Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.
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