Ronza Othman, a lawyer with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore, hasn’t been able to order a sandwich without help in her office cafeteria for a decade.
Before the deli replaced workers with a touch screen in 2012, she would walk up to the counter and ask for a roast beef and cheddar sandwich with cucumbers, not pickles. But Ronza, who is blind, can’t work the touch screen as it doesn’t take voice commands.
“I’m an attorney. I have a master’s degree in government and nonprofit management. I’ve raised children,” she said. “But I can’t get a damn sandwich by myself in my agency.”
Congress made a portion of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act known as Section 508, which asks federal agencies to make technology accessible, mandatory in 1998. But nearly a quarter century later, they are still failing to do so. And it’s not just about ordering lunch. Roughly 30 percent of the most popular federal websites don’t meet accessibility standards, according to a 2021 report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Enforcement is virtually nonexistent, and agencies are spending little effort or money to comply.
“Clients of my firm right now are dealing with trainings required by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that don’t work with blind people screen readers and with intake kiosks at the Social Security Administration that are not accessible,” said Eve Hill, a lawyer with Brown, Goldstein & Levy, who testified about the problems before the Senate Aging Committee last month.
Hill, along with Anil Lewis, executive director for blindness initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind, and Jule Ann Lieberman, assistive technology program coordinator at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities, asked senators to ensure the federal government is complying with federal disability law.
Most frustrating, the advocates said, is that making technology accessible isn’t difficult. It just requires forethought. And it’s important. More than a quarter of Americans have a disability.
For the past 10 years, the DOJ hasn’t made public any of the biennial reports that Congress mandated on compliance with Section 508. As of the DOJ’s last report in September 2012, less than half of federal agencies had established a compliance plan. Those that did had an average operating budget of $35,000 a year devoted to the task.
In June, Senate Aging Committee Chair Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and ranking member Tim Scott (R-S.C.), along with other lawmakers, wrote to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
They asked McDonough to provide detailed information about the accessibility of VA websites and plans to bring them into compliance, noting that only 8 percent of its public sites and even fewer of its intranet sites complied with the law. “The lack of fully accessible websites at VA is a potential barrier for the one-quarter of all veterans with a service-connected disability, and may well be a harbinger of similar shortfalls at other federal agencies and departments,” the senators wrote.
In a letter responding to Casey, McDonough said that the VA’s most-used websites have accessibility ratings of 95 percent or higher. The department is now conducting daily accessibility scans, he said, to bring other sites into compliance.
In their letter to Garland, the lawmakers asked why the DOJ has not made public more of its reporting on agency compliance. The department said it is working with the White House Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration on relaying its data to Congress and the president.
Carlos Montas, a former employee of the Veterans Benefits Administration in Nashville, Tenn., who is blind, can relate to Othman’s struggles.
When he took a job with the agency in March 2020 that involved calling veterans to explain their benefits, his manager gave him digital audio workstation software and a Braille display, which allowed him to read text on the screen with his fingertips.
But neither technology was compatible with much of the software he needed to do his job. He found performing simple tasks, like attaching a document to an email, was impossible.
He said the VA instituted performance benchmarks and eventually fired him for not keeping up. He filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and won his job back along with back pay. He quit a few months later for a job at the EEOC.
People who are hard of hearing struggle with federal technology as well. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, advocates with the National Association of the Deaf said that HHS videos did not have proper captioning and were unavailable in American Sign Language.
In their letter to McDonough, Casey and Scott highlighted the VA’s own data showing that hearing loss is “by far the most prevalent service-connected disability.” Hill said people who are deaf or hard of hearing struggle with training and educational videos that lack captions.
The VA, which serves about 9 million veterans a year, is at the center of the problem, according to Casey and Scott. In March, the senators said the department had acknowledged “hundreds of thousands of Section 508 compliance issues remain to be resolved.”
But problems with accessibility extend across much of the federal government.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that promotes the use of technology in policy solutions, audited federal websites in 2021. They found that 30 percent of them, including popular sites like weather.gov, energystar.gov and census.gov, did not pass an automated accessibility test and nearly half had webpages that failed the test.
The report recommended that the General Services Administration, which supports other federal agencies’ logistical needs, create an accessibility testing lab to ensure sites are compliant and expand its existing Digital Analytics Program to conduct real-time accessibility testing. It also suggested that Congress require the DOJ to make its 508 accessibility reports public.
Eric Egan, a policy fellow with the foundation, said he was unaware of any steps the GSA had taken to implement the reports’ recommendations. He said the foundation was encouraged by the Senate Aging Committee’s oversight.
A spokesperson for GSA said the agency is collecting self-reported data from agencies about their compliance with Section 508, analyzing it, and making recommendations. GSA is also involved with an interagency effort to update guidance on Section 508 compliance.
‘A flawed process’
Advocates for people with disabilities say fixing accessibility problems shouldn’t be expensive. In his testimony before the Senate Aging Committee, Lewis attempted to disabuse senators of the idea that accessible technology costs a lot. “Accessible coding is just good coding,” he said.
He offered an example. If the federal government were to create all its documents on typewriters and then hand them over to a contractor to be digitized, that would be expensive and inefficient. Instead of layering outdated technology onto a newer framework, the government should be using technology that designs around accessibility from the start, he said.
Some vendors offer such tools, said Sommer Panage, who manages a team of engineers focused on accessibility at Slack, the instant-messaging service. She said Slack has long considered the needs of people with disabilities in its product design and recently changed its internal operations to make its software more consistently accessible.
Panage manages a team of engineers focused on accessibility and said her team is now making sure people with disabilities can use any new feature before release, while also seeking to ensure it will work with outside accessibility tools.
“There’s a really big matrix of the combinations of different operating systems, different screen readers, different screen readers within each operating system, and then Slack itself,” she told POLITICO. “What we’ve been really working on now is thinking about that matrix holistically.”
But advocates for people with disabilities say the federal government is behind the curve. Agencies don’t often test technology for accessibility before implementation, and consequences are rare when government contractors don’t ensure that people with disabilities can use their products, said Doug George Towne, chair and CEO of Access Ready, a disability rights advocacy organization. “It’s a flawed process,” he said.
Othman said that a culture of penny-pinching makes life worse for people with disabilities in her workplace. For example, when her office updated the photocopiers, the agency was given an option to pay a small additional fee for a speech package, which would have made the machines accessible to employees who are vision-impaired. A lever attachment to help employees in wheelchairs raise the copier’s lid was also available. But the agency opted for neither.
After employees, including Othman, complained, she said the office bought a few packages instead of deploying the technology officewide.
President Joe Biden won plaudits early in his administration for prioritizing accessibility. An interpreter has regularly translated Biden’s speeches into sign language, and the White House has provided captions for those watching online. The White House press secretary is always accompanied by a sign language interpreter, and the administration has provided live audio descriptions of White House events for people with vision impairments.
In June 2021, Biden issued an executive order asking agencies “to improve accessibility, ensure accommodations can be requested, increase opportunities for advancement and hiring, and reduce physical accessibility barriers.”
The Office of Management and Budget already requires 24 agencies to file reports twice a year about the accessibility of their technological infrastructure.
But those reports aren’t public. It’s part of a broader information blackout that Casey and four other senators, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Richard Burr, (R-N.C.), called attention to in an Aug. 11 letter to Comptroller General Eugene Dodaro.
The senators asked Dodaro, who runs Congress’s watchdog arm, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate, writing that “the lack of public reporting and accountability leaves Congress and taxpayers without adequate information about the rate of compliance with disability access requirements.”