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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

In the rush to digital transformation, don’t overlook accessibility

Over the past several years, many government agencies have relentlessly focused on digital transformation -- applying technologies in innovative ways to solve common challenges. The goal for these agencies is to enable citizens to easily and conveniently accomplish tasks online, such as renewing a driver’s license without having to visit a physical branch.

Now imagine if a physical location to renew licenses wasn’t accessible to a large portion of the public. There would be an uproar, and rightfully so. Beyond the realm of government, the number of legal cases alleging that organizations are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act due to inaccessible websites has more than tripled since 2017. Public awareness of digital accessibility is growing rapidly, and more citizens are coming to understand accessibility as a basic right -- especially when it comes to government services .

Adding to the pressure, in December 2018 the 21st Century IDEA Act was signed into law, requiring all new and redesigned public-facing federal government websites to be accessible to persons with disabilities. With the compliance deadline just around the corner (mid June), we recently analyzed half a dozen leading government agency websites and found that all of them still have some issues and violations.

This doesn’t mean that agencies as a whole are non-compliant. In our experience, we’ve seen even the most accessibility-friendly websites (like Amazon) still aren’t 100% accessible. Time is ticking, but there is no need to panic. Here are some best practices to improve the accessibility of your agency website:

Understand the site's goals. What are the critical user-flows for a public-facing website? If a website is informational, accessibility should be focused on making content easy to receive and interpret by using correct semantic HTML, paying attention to the site’s navigation and focus order and ensuring media content is captioned and transcribed. If the goal is to support transactions such as paying a parking ticket, the checkout process must be usable by assistive technologies and, ideally, as intuitive and seamless as possible.

For example, key steps and buttons in the process should be accompanied by clear, accessible text that explains where the link is going or the function the button will perform (e.g. “submit payment” instead of “submit” or “Virginia DMV driver’s license information” instead of “learn more”). This makes it easier for people with visual impairments using assistive technology, such as a screen reader, to accurately understand and navigate the page and perform a task. And as citizens increasingly rely on mobile sites and transactions for everything from looking up health care insurance options to paying property taxes, accessibility in mobile site design is becoming especially critical.

Build accessibility into the software development process. The best way for budget-constrained agencies to cost-effectively ensure accessibility is to address it early on in the software development process. This can prevent inadvertent exclusionary design practices from slipping into production where the costs of potential legal action or inundated call centers far exceed the resources required for early testing. Ideally, accessibility testing should commence even before the actual development work begins -- as early as the design stage.

Make regression testing a must. One of the most common mistakes we see is that organizations release an accessible digital service, only to implement changes downstream that undo the accessibility. As we’ve noted, the ideal time to test for accessibility is pre-production, but regression testing -- or repeated testing of an already-tested program --  is one area where it makes sense to test post-production. It is critical to ensure accessibility features that have been put in place have not been altered in any way by downstream code modifications.

Focus on progress, not perfection. Techniques for making digital services more accessible to more people with a wider range of disabilities will always be a work in progress as new best practices are always emerging. This is a positive by-product of the recent open-sourcing of accessibility rules libraries -- these are constantly being updated by developers, thus growing in potential for automated testing coverage every day.

This also means a definitive list of accessibility best practices will likely never be conclusive or complete. Most websites, even those with the greatest accessibility reputations, still have areas for improvement. At any given time, we have found that most websites are only 50% optimized for accessibility. So agencies shouldn't don’t put artificial pressure on themselves to be perfect -- instead, they should focus on making critical user paths accessible and being open to continually testing and fixing accessibility violations.

Empower the developers. Developers shouldn’t have to slow down their work to address accessibility. Empowering developers for accessibility means equipping them with tools and training. Automated testing before, during and after production is key to this process.

Manual testing is still required for accessibility, as automation can only detect about 30% to 50% of accessibility issues. Testing efforts can be enriched through intuitive tools that take developers through guided manual testing of their digital properties to verify certain accessibility violations. This greatly reduces the agency's dependence on third-party experts and vendors to achieve accessibility and sets it up for long-term, sustainable accessibility success.

While the mid-June deadline is an important milestone for federal agency accessibility requirements, it exists within a much broader global context of greater demand for digital accessibility.

In an era defined by digital transformation, government agencies and their development teams must heed accessibility ever more closely and continually strive toward making all public-facing online properties fully inclusive. Aside from just being good business practice, digital accessibility can make lives better for millions of Americans living with disabilities.

About the Author

Preety Kumar is the CEO and founder of Deque Systems.

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