Last updated: July 15, 2019

Web Accessibility Explained For Government Agencies

WCAG 2.1 - ADA - Section 508 - With so many web accessibility terms floating around, what does your government need to know?
Posted by Karl Pawlewicz
This is another in our series on web accessibility for local governments. As federal, state, and local governments embrace the digital age, law requires online information and services to be accessible to all staff and constituents. But with the constantly evolving digital landscape, many governments are at a loss for how to incorporate accessibility into their digital strategy. What do governments need to know about digital accessibility and how can they stay ahead of the curve? According to a 2018 report by the Center for Disease Control, one in 4 U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – have a disability that impacts major life activities. That’s 25% of adults that require some type of modification in order to enjoy equal access to services. For years, accessibility was associated with physical spaces, and legislation mandated accommodations such as accessible wheelchair ramps and handicap parking for people with disabilities. However, individuals with disabilities are also affected by services beyond the physical realm, such as websites, electronic documents, multimedia, and social media. In 2019, “digital” is becoming the new frontier for accessibility. A 2017 study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that 85% of government sites are not ADA compliant. As a result, there has been a spike in lawsuits over the last few years due to digital real estate “so inhospitable it denies access”. But digital accessibility is more than just the law – it’s the right thing to do. Especially for government – an institution dedicated to serving the public – digital accessibility matters. It is pertinent that government services be accessible to the full public, not just the 75% of adults without a disability. As the first comprehensive digital accessibility guide developed specifically for state and local governments, this white paper focuses on what you need to know about digital accessibility, how to overcome current and future challenges, and why your agency should care.

Compliance: ADA vs. Section 508 vs. WCAG

The ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act) was signed in 1990 to prohibit disability-based discrimination against mental and physical medical conditions. ADA legislation mandates reasonable accommodations in the realm of employment, public entities (i.e. local and state government), public accommodations, and telecommunications. While the ADA mandates accessibility for disabled people broadly, it has come to encompass web accessibility. Section 508 is a 1998 amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, designed to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 technical standards apply to software and operating systems, intranet and internets, computers, and other technology products used by federal agencies. As of January 2018, Section 508 requires federal agencies to adhere to WCAG 2.0 standards. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) was developed with the goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally. WCAG 2.0 was published on 11 December 2008, requiring web content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, to accommodate users with visual, hearing, mobility, cognitive, and language needs. In 2018, WCAG 2.1 was published, covering an even wider range of recommendations for making web content more accessible.

10 Must Haves to Be Compliant with Accessible Online Services Standards

Did you know that you can be fined up to $75,000 for your first ADA violation and $150,000 for any subsequent violation? Compliance is measured on the basis of whether a website is Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. Based on WCAG 2.1, we’ve compiled 10 must haves to help you set up accessible online forms and applications.
  1. Allow end users to modify the form’s content to accommodate their needs, including large print, speech, simpler language, etc.
  2. Allow content to be presented in different ways, such as simpler layout, without losing information.
  3. Make it easier for users to see content, such as separating foreground from background.
  4. Make all functionality available from a keyboard, including form submission and form management post-submission.
  5. Provide ways to help users navigate the forms.
  6. Make content readable and understandable.
  7. Make forms appear and operate in predictable ways.
  8. Help users avoid and correct mistakes when they fill out forms.
  9. Do not design form content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
  10. Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

Which web accessibility regulations should I be following?

If you are a federal agency…

Your web accessibility program is legally obligated to adhere to Section 508. Failure to conform can result in lawsuits and fines, as was famously illustrated in the 2013 lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, citing Section 508. As of January 2018, Section 508 requires adherence to WCAG 2.0, specifically around making federal government websites accessible for people with hearing and sight disabilities using screen readers and other assistive technology.

If you are a state or local agency…

Your accessibility program is legally obligated to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title II of the ADA prohibits disability discrimination by all public entities (city, municipal, county, state, special district, school district), and includes discrimination due to inaccessible websites. Since 2011, hundreds of local and state government entities have been sued on the grounds of having inaccessible websites. In settlements, governments are typically given 3-6 months to make improvements to the accessibility of web-based services and programs, in compliance with WCAG 2.0. You can be fined up to $75,000 for your first ADA violation and $150,000 for any subsequent violation. While Section 508 applies to the Federal government, there may be implications for employees and others at the State level.

What’s wrong with my website and what can I do about it?

The average government website hosts thousands of inaccessible PDFs, both static documents and interactive forms or applications. These PDFs are inaccessible in the sense that individuals who use screen readers and other assistive technologies cannot readily access the contents of these PDFs. A truly accessible government will need to transition all of these digital assets into compliant versions. With static PDF documents, you have the option of creating an online version of the content, or remediating the PDF. A plethora of document remediation services can facilitate the process. With PDF forms and applications, even remediated versions will often still require printing, faxing, delivering, and other prohibitive efforts. Citizens and government staff are increasingly looking for compliant solutions that allow these interactive processes to be completed and submitted online. GovOS is at the forefront of providing ADA, 508, and WCAG 2.1 compliant online services for all levels of government. Our form solution quickly and easily transforms your PDF forms and applications into accessible cloud-based versions, while digitizing and streamlining the end-to-end process.

[Infographic] Web and Digital Accessibility for Government Agencies

Over the past few years, hundreds of local and state government entities have been sued for failing to meet digital accessibility requirements. Often, governments aren’t even aware their digital presence is inaccessible until they’re hit by an ADA lawsuit and hefty fines. At GovOS, our goal is to educate and empower governments to develop ADA, 508, and WCAG 2.1 compliant digital services. Learn more about how we worked with the ADA Program Manager of Austin, TX to build accessible online forms to automate their Request for Reasonable Accommodations. Our infographic illustrates some of the key points you need to know about digital accessibility in government agencies.
An infographic by SeamlessDocs that illustrates key considerations for government agencies at all levels with regard to digital accessibility.


Education & Inspiration

Resources for Local Government Officials