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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Prepare now for upcoming website accessibility mandates

Is your local government website designed and organized in a way that makes finding information easy or even possible for citizens with visual, auditory, cognitive or other disabilities?

Federal mandates calling to remove barriers that prevent interaction with or access to websites by people with disabilities are a growing concern for government agencies. New rules on Americans with Disabilities Act website compliance will be issued in 2018, and existing guidelines -- such as ADA, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and Section 508 -- increasingly are being enforced.

Yet, in our third annual North America-wide study, we found that nearly 9 out of 10 (87 percent) of the 435 municipal and county government respondents said they have moderate, weak or no knowledge of federal web accessibility requirements. Despite nearly 20 years of laws governing digital accessibility, this is only a 2 percent improvement over last year.

Nor is that information gap limited to small agencies. This survey reached the leaders of cities with as many as 1.5 million residents, where, despite bigger departments and substantial IT budgets, knowledge of exactly how to bring websites into compliance with federal rules is still needed. 

Overall, the 2017 survey revealed that many local government leaders and IT professionals continue to grapple with internal and external challenges that prevent their websites from being as effective, transparent and accessible as today’s technology allows.

How can citizens access online government information if they have difficulty seeing a computer screen, strain to hear sound, or struggle to use a keyboard?

More than 8 out of 10 people with disabilities use aids and assistive devices to facilitate movement or help them hear, see or learn. Just as poorly designed buildings can prevent citizens with disabilities from entering, poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers to full civic participation in the digital age.

Government leaders at all levels recognize they have a legal and moral obligation to make public services accessible to all citizens. But awareness of the issue is entirely different from knowing exactly what needs to be done to make a website compliant. The good news is many accessibility features are easily implemented if they are planned when a website is being developed or redesigned.

In the past year, our government website development specialists have conducted meetings across the country with large and small agencies, many on their third- or fourth-generation websites, who still believe accessibility is purely about the technology itself. While having an accessible content management system in place is an important first step, compliance requires much more.

It’s about how content is written. It’s about captioning videos. And it’s about using content headers properly.

Creating and maintaining an accessible website requires both technology and the know-how to leverage the technology effectively. It all begins with a CMS that supports the creation of WCAG-accessible content with features like mouse-free navigation, alt-tag requirements, form field labels and responsive layout.

It also requires following guidelines first developed by the World Wide Web Consortium in 2000 and updated in 2008 that address everything from special technology, color contrast and a color palette for people with color blindness to standards for the words used in descriptions and making information easy to understand.

Screen readers, for example, rely heavily on proper use of headings, styles and links to present information to those with visual impairments. If an agency’s content editors aren't aware of standards and best practices, the site will quickly fall out of compliance. Curriculum-based accessibility training can teach staff about these requirements and how they can write and format content to be optimized for screen readers. This Digital Accessibility Checklist can help agencies ensure online services are available to citizens with disabilities.

Some local governments are making great progress with website accessibility. In the City of Rancho Cordova, Calif., for example, website accessibility is now a top priority. Yet during a website redesign in 2016, the city’s communications specialist, Ashley Downton, was unsure how to make the site accessible.   “In the beginning, we knew what the federal requirements were, but didn’t know how to meet them,”  she said. Now Rancho Cordova is on the cutting edge of website accessibility, but Downton admitted,  “it’s still an ongoing learning process.”

To get ahead of the legislation expected in 2018, local agencies need to begin now to make their sites WCAG 2.0 compliant. The Department of Justice has taken the position that websites offering goods or services to consumers are places of public accommodation and must be accessible to the disabled. It has moved accessibility compliance to the top of its regulatory review list, and over the last 15 years it has conducted accessibility reviews in more than 200 jurisdictions. Since the beginning of 2015, the Justice Department has entered into settlements with more than 20 cities and counties in the U.S.

The bottom line is that the newest accessibility guidelines require processes, functionality and content deliverables not currently provided by many agencies and their existing websites. Moreover, accessibility rules and compliance enforcement are rapidly evolving, making it difficult for many municipalities to keep pace with the technology and expertise required to stay ahead of the issue.

Every citizen deserves full access to local government digital services and information. Thankfully, the opportunities and tools available to foster engagement with all individuals on the digital level are greater than ever.

About the Author

Ashley Fruechting is senior director of marketing for Vision, a government website design, development and hosting firm.

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