US Senators Call Out Federal Government on Accessibility

In the United States, where the public disability rate is estimated at 26% and the aging population is rising sharply, there is an increasingly urgent need to ensure all people have equal access to government information and technology. 

For a growing number of Americans, a lack of access to essential services and information due to non compliance with digital accessibility standards can be truly catastrophic.   

Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of US senators led by U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging Chairman Bob Casey wrote to the Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding answers regarding the federal government’s compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

A number of important players were behind this demand for answers, including Senate Aging Committee Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-SC), Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

So what is the real issue here? Well, the group is essentially concerned that the federal government is failing to live up to its obligation to ensure that all information and services are equally accessible to individuals with disabilities. 

This recent development comes in response to the inactivity of the federal government in fulfilling a number of specific accessibility obligations. Notable amongst these is the commitment to regularly publish biennial reports on Section 508 compliance. 

These reports have not been forthcoming, however, with the most recent being published all the way back in 2012.  

In their letter, the Senators stress that ‘‘without regular reports, Congress, taxpayers, and agencies themselves lack a crucial source of feedback for identifying and resolving longstanding accessibility issues.’’ 

Why it Matters

This is significant as it puts a much needed spotlight on the inactivity and a lack of accountability on the federal level when it comes to accessibility. This is no small matter, as Senator Casey himself asserted, ‘‘For people with disabilities, website accessibility and other forms of accessible [technology] are necessities—not luxuries or conveniences—that foster independence, economic self-sufficiency and active, meaningful participation in civic life.’’ 

In other words, this is not some abstract academic legal dispute over a bunch of unimportant technical details, but a real issue that will have a dramatic impact on the quality of people’s lives. 

So, what exactly did the senators say in their letter, and why? In short, the letter presents a series of specific and pointed questions related to the DOJ’s lack of progress in implementing Section 508 accessibility standards.

The list of questions are as follows:

  1. Why did the DOJ stop issuing biennial reports on Section 508 compliance?
  2. Given the absence of biennial reports, does DOJ believe it is satisfying its data collection and reporting obligations under Section 508?
  3. Has DOJ collected Section 508 compliance data more recently than 2012? If so, when? If not, why not?
  4. Has DOJ issued recommendations or feedback to other federal agencies on their Section 508 compliance?
  5. Does the DOJ have the resources and personnel necessary to comply with the law and issue these reports?
  6. How does DOJ plan to begin meeting its biennial reporting requirement under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act? 

The letter also included a demand for a detailed timeline indicating when the DOJ plans to notify federal departments that it plans to conduct a survey; when it plans to send that survey; and when it plans to issue a report to Congress and the President detailing the results of the survey, along with its recommendations.

The senators requested that answers to the above questions be provided by July 29, 2022. As yet these answers are still to be provided, however.

Why These Questions Need Answers

Needless to say, the outcry from these senators constitutes a much needed call to action that will hopefully serve to energize those fighting for true equality in the area of online digital accessibility. Until answers to the above questions are provided, the DOJ is effectively neglecting its duty to be fully transparent with regards to prioritizing the needs of disabled people in society. 

As the Senators’ letter makes crystal clear, the need for federal regulatory action in the area of digital accessibility is critical due to ‘‘the flood of new and emerging technologies entering the marketplace and being incorporated into our daily lives.’’ Going further still, the Senators argue that ‘‘if these technologies are inaccessible, they will leave behind many people with disabilities.’’

This is certainly the case, and efforts such as the one being led by Senator Casey must be highlighted and championed if true progress is ever to be made with regards to digital accessibility on the federal level.

Why Action Is Needed Now

With a recent third party report finding that 30% of the most visited federal website homepages do not currently pass standard accessibility tests, it is absolutely vital that continued pressure is put on the DOJ to live up to its commitments. 

As an initial step towards making all federal websites truly accessible, Senator Casey has suggested that the DOJ should begin to once again publicly issue section 508 reports. 

While this would be a very welcome first step, there is still much more that remains to be done in the fight to ensure equal digital accessibility for those with disabilities. This includes, but is not limited to the creation of specific requirements and technical compliance standards that can facilitate meaningful change. But one battle at a time. 

If you need more information on becoming compliant with Section 508 regulations, check out our essential Accessibility Handbook. Or you can book a free compliance scan from Monsido’s Web Accessibility solution. We are here to help you become accessible and Section 508 compliant!