Published in RINewsToday on February 27, 2023
After Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced on March 20, 2020, the bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), the legislative proposal passed both chambers to ultimately be signed into law nine months later by President Donald Trump. The new law directed the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to report to Congress regarding the he accessibility of VA websites to people with disabilities.
Casey calls for better website technology
On Dec. 20, 2022, Casey released Unlocking the Virtual Front Door, a 72-page report detailing the findings of an 11-month investigation that found widespread failure across the federal government to ensure that website technology is accessible for people with disabilities, seniors, and veterans. The investigators identified the absence of U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reporting as a contributing factor to widespread accessibility gaps at the numerous federal departments and agencies.
On June 30, 2022, Casey led a bipartisan group of Senators respondence led by Casey in sending correspondence to DOJ Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding answers from the agency on its lack of website accessibility for people with disabilities.
Earlier that month, Casey also had sent correspondence to VA Secretary Denis McDonough urging the agency to improve VA website accessibility for disabled veterans.
Casey also released a report from the VA from the VA which found that only 10 percent of VA websites are fully accessible for people with disabilities, as required by law, posing barriers to deaf, blind and paralyzed veterans as well as tens of thousands of veterans with other disabilities.
On July 28, 2022, Casey’s Senate Aging Committee held a hearing that further investigated the issue the issue of federal website accessibility.
With Casey’s ongoing pressure, ultimately DOJ would finally release a report last week for the first time in a decade.
Reaction’s to DOJ’s website data release
Casey, Chair of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, quickly reacted to the release of DOJ data in a Feb. 22, 2023, press release, noting that the agency was required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to provide a report to Congress and the President every two years on federal technology accessibility. “Despite this mandate, the latest report was from 2012, leaving taxpayers in the dark for over a decade about the accessibility of government technology, including websites, for people with disabilities,” said the press release.
While new data confirmed the findings of Casey’s recent investigation that exposed widespread accessibility barriers to federal technology, the press release criticized the data as “insufficient and incomplete,” calling on DOJ and the entire federal government to prioritize technology and web accessibility and transparency.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the federal government to make all its website information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Unfortunately, because of ongoing barriers to federal website and technology access, Casey charges that many people with disabilities—including seniors and veterans—are being barred from accessing key government resources, facing barriers to accessing information about COVID-19, filing claims and accessing health care, using VA kiosks, and more.
Casey’s repeated calls for data for transparency confirmed by his investigation that revealed that people with disabilities are being locked out of government services and are not given a level playing field in federal workplaces due to inaccessible technology. ”Unfortunately, after a decade of keeping the public in the dark, DOJ has not provided Americans with disabilities insight into what progress has been made over that time period—which will make it harder for the federal government to remedy these issues and ultimately improve web and technology accessibility,” says the Pennsylvania Senator. “It is clear that the federal government has a lot more work to do to make technology accessibility and transparency a priority and fulfill our promise to Americans with disabilities, older adults, and veterans,” he said.
Casey urged the DOJ to improve transparency around Section 508 compliance by returning to their mandated biennial reporting and ensuring their reports are modeled more closely after the agency’s 2012 web report instead of an abridged data set that DOJ released last week
Taking a closer look
DOJ’s recently released report, based on data from Feb. 2021 through August 2022, compiled in partnership with the General Services Administration, found that one in 10 public-facing websites at major federal departments and agencies are not fully accessible for people with disabilities. In addition, three in five internal websites at major federal departments and agencies are not fully accessible to people with disabilities.
According to the data, the Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, Department of State, and VA reported that 50 percent or less of the public-facing websites that were tested comply with federal accessibility requirements.
The DOJ data noted that some departments and federal agencies did not report conducting any accessibility testing of internal websites. It not clear what steps departments and agencies are taking to test other types of technology covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
DOJ data indicated that key government agencies, including DOJ itself, as well as the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency did not have adequate “resources committed and/or staff trained to implement policies, processes, and procedures.” These shortfalls in staffing were reflected in data regarding the low number of federal and contract employees directly supporting Section 508 programs in many agencies.
DOJ also found that “agency maturity remains largely unchanged from prior reporting,” raising concerns that, despite over a decade of technological evolution, many federal government agencies have not made efforts to improve and better integrate Section 508 compliance and ensure the federal government’s resources are available for people with disabilities, including taxpayers and federal workers.
Finally, Casey observed that DOJ’s recommendations underscore many of the recommendations he made in his report, which called for enhanced oversight and transparency from DOJ regarding Section 508 compliance as well as better integration of accessibility into everyday oversight efforts at every federal agency.