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Many agencies fail to meet tech accessibility mandates, report finds

The congressionally mandated report from the General Services Administration follows first-in-a-decade guidance on Section 508 released in December.

The General Services Administration released what it’s calling a new baseline for government tech accessibility last week, and the results are not looking great.

“The government as a whole is not meeting the minimum standard or legal obligation to provide equal access to all members of the public and federal employees with disabilities,” the new report reads.

It’s focused on federal compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires government tech to be accessible for people with disabilities — nearly one in four U.S. adults — as well as the maturity of the government’s Section 508 programs. 

Mandated as an annual exercise under 2023 appropriations law, this assessment from GSA with help from the Office of Management and Budget used self-reported data collected between June 2022 and May 2023 from 249 respondents representing agencies and components across the government on 105 assessment criteria.

Of the most viewed intranet and internet pages, electronic documents and videos, less than 30% were fully in line with Section 508 standards on average. Low conformance rates signal that the policies, practices and procedures in place for accessibility lack teeth, the report notes. 

Agencies with more mature Section 508 programs and more staff did have more accessible tech, the report found, although 38 reporting components said that they have no Section 508 staffers at all, according to the report.

Overall, federal tech accessibility is “well below expectations, given the federal government has had over 20 years to implement programs capable of achieving and maintaining modern [information and communications technology] standards,” the report reads. 

Until an OMB memo issued late last month, agencies hadn’t received updated guidance on Section 508 since 2013. 

Clare Martorana, federal chief information officer, told Nextgov/FCW at the time that the lack of regular accessibility measurements and designated officials accountable for compliance at every agency has likely contributed to the current state of tech accessibility in government.

And until early last year, the Department of Justice also hadn’t issued its legally-required biennial report on Section 508 compliance since 2012.

The report recommends that Congress focus oversight efforts on major tech vendors to determine how to improve the accessibility of high-use software products, like office productivity applications, employed at many government agencies.

GSA also encourages agencies to use acquisition tools to build accessibility requirements into procurement and contracting documents and set up policies for what happens when procured tech isn’t accessible.

Increased accessibility testing, mandatory training for relevant employees and more internal agency oversight and leadership accountability on accessibility also feature in the recommendations, as does increased capacity for Section 508 programs.

For the fiscal 2024 assessment, GSA will be working to get better and more consistent data from agencies and honing criteria, according to the report. Some reporting officers noted that they were concerned about retribution if they answered honestly, or were asked to change their responses to make their agencies look better, the report says, leading to data quality issues. 

“Even with a possible overinflation of implementation to Section 508,” however, “the government overall still has much room for improvement,” it states.

A spokesperson for Democrats on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee told Nextgov/FCW via email that “these findings are not acceptable,” noting that “government needs to meet veterans, students, workers, seniors and others where they’re at. To do so, however, requires Congress passing a budget that allows for necessary investments in federal agencies and their workforces.”