When it comes to assistive technology, government should lead and not follow. That is not always the case. We tip our hats to the online news site Politico for shedding light on the complex and frustrating issues that disabled federal employees continue to face.
Politico did extensive reporting on lack of compliance with a part of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act known as Section 508. Congress made Section 508 of the act mandatory in 1998. This change was and still is meant for federal agencies to make technology accessible. But that hasn’t happened from what anyone can tell.
This is all despite President Joe Biden’s June 2021 directive that federal agencies make accessibility improvements, assuring that accommodations can be asked for, opportunities for advancement and hiring can increase, and physical accessibility barriers will be reduced.
According to a 2021 report by the Washington. D.C.-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, about 30 percent of the most-used federal websites don’t meet accessibility standards. That affects the public, too.
The foundation promotes the use of technology in policy solutions. It found that websites including weather.gov, energystar.gov and census.gov, failed automated accessibility tests. Its report recommends that the federal General Services Administration (GSA) create an accessibility testing lab to ensure sites are compliant and make other changes in accessibility testing.
The scope of impacts on federal employees must be equally frustrating. There’s little to no enforcement. Agencies simply aren’t taking the time or spending the money to comply.
The U.S. Senate Aging Committee heard testimony over the summer about the ongoing problems federal employees have faced. The National Federation for the Blind, Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities, National Association for the Deaf, private law firms and other groups representing elders and people with disabilities are among those speaking out about the issues of public website access and the need for federal employee accommodations.
Getting technology in place is one challenge our community faces. Another is what appears to be lack of access to information.
The Department of Justice hasn’t made public any of the biennial reports that congress mandated on compliance with Section 508. The last report Politico found was in September 2012. At that time less than half of the federal agencies had compliance plans in place. Agencies with plans in place had budgeted, on average, $35,000 to implement the accommodations needed.
That is just ridiculous and unacceptable on so many levels. For one thing, the reports should be public information. Period. Without the reports, we don’t know if federal agencies have made needed changes over the past decades.
And $35,000 is a pittance in the scheme of federal spending. Even adjusted for inflation, we’d bet the coffee budgets for some federal agencies are larger than that amount.
Here’s another reporting issue: Nor are mandated agency reports to the Office of Management (OMB) and Budget available to all. It’s required that 24 agencies to file reports twice a year about the accessibility of their technological infrastructure. But those reports aren’t public.
The access issues have generated much back and forth between members agency leaders. Over the summer Senate Aging Committee Chair Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and ranking member Tim Scott (R-S.C.) contacted Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and Attorney General Merrick Garland about the accessibility of VA websites. That prompted debate over how accessible VA websites are for disabled veterans. The VA is now conducting daily accessibility scans.
Others have objected to the blackout on OMB reports.
Politico was also able to document cases where federal employees with disabilities couldn’t do their work or even order lunch in a federal cafeteria due to lack of accommodations. Lack of accommodations that were not costly were spelled out. All it would have taken in one case was to put a lever on a copy machine. Another was to add compatible software to programs.
If the federal government isn’t in compliance with Section 508, and if we cannot get timely and public reports, that sends a terrible message to other units of government.
It sends a terrible message to private employers. We need compliance in the private sector so that we can have work opportunities. But if the federal government sets a bad example, then what?
One in four us has a disability. One in four. What does it mean for us when information on accommodations isn’t available at the federal level? What does it mean for people with disabilities seeking employment at the federal level, when their work needs cannot be met?
It took an international pandemic to prove that virtual and hybrid workplaces could be successful for all. We cannot let those gains be rolled back. Changes are needed at the federal level for our leaders to indeed lead and for us to work.