Generally speaking, government websites have issues with accessibility. A 2018 study from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) analyzed 8 websites from each of the 50 U.S. states — 400 state government websites in total. Only 59 percent of state websites passed the Level AA success criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, widely accepted as the standard for digital accessibility.
In most countries, government agencies are required by law to create content that makes reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. In practice, however, many websites make basic mistakes that affect their users: Missing alternative text, keyboard traps, and other WCAG violations can render a site completely unusable for some people.
Web accessibility isn’t always difficult, expensive, or time consuming, but it does require the right approach. If you’re a developer, designer, or content coordinator for a government agency, here’s how to establish an accessible mindset.
1. Understand how accessibility affects government websites
For federal agencies in the United States, accessibility compliance is mandatory. In 1998, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended to include Section 508, which requires US federal agencies to make their digital content accessible. Section 508 was updated in 2018 to add additional requirements and to explicitly declare the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A/AA as formal accessibility requirements.
Municipal and state government websites have different requirements, but accessibility is a growing priority for public content. That’s also true outside of the United States: Laws like the European Accessibility Act (EAA) and Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA) have also embraced the WCAG framework.
2. Treat digital accessibility as a priority, not an afterthought
An accessibility report can tell you what to fix — but the best tactic is to avoid creating barriers in the first place. Work with subject matter experts who can explain how your design and development decisions affect your audience.
All government agencies should implement accessibility training, and digital accessibility should be part of that training. When your entire team understands the principles of WCAG, they can proactively prevent barriers from occurring. Developers will learn to test forms to ensure usability with keyboard-only navigation; social media creators can develop better processes for posting updates on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Prioritizing accessibility can limit the ongoing costs of website maintenance and improve your agency’s relationship with the disabilities community. Remember, many of the best practices of accessibility improve the browsing experience for all users, regardless of their abilities — by investing in accessibility, you’ll build a stronger website.
3. Don’t focus on accommodating a single assistive technology
Screen readers are an important part of the accessibility conversation. These software tools convert content to audio or braille, improving access for people with vision disabilities and other conditions.
However, 1 in 4 US adults live with some form of disability, and conditions affect user behavior in a variety of different ways. Some people prefer to browse with voice controls; others use touchscreens or eye-gaze monitors. Government websites need to accommodate all of these users, not just one specific group.
The WCAG framework focuses on four principles of accessibility: perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness. Webmasters need to understand these principles to create truly accessible content.
4. Maintain government websites to keep them accessible for all users
Government websites may have mandates to check accessibility on a certain schedule. In California, for instance, state agencies must assess their websites for WCAG compliance once per year.
This can lead website administrators to assume that their sites are accessible year-round. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true, and when government sites aren’t accessible to people with disabilities, those people may not be able to find information or use crucial resources. For instance, in March 2021, Australia’s clinic finder — created to schedule COVID-19 vaccinations — allegedly contained numerous accessibility barriers in violation of the country’s Disability Discrimination Act of 1992.
Taxpayer-funded websites have a legal and ethical responsibility to offer reasonable accommodations. Every time you create a form, update your blog, or add media, you’ll need to consider accessibility. Working with an experienced accessibility partner can improve your results.
5. Accessibility testing plays a crucial role in compliance
An accessibility audit may reveal dozens of issues with your website — or a limited number of barriers that can be addressed easily. Webmasters should test frequently throughout development to ensure compliance. If a government website undergoes significant changes, testing should be performed before the changes are published.
When performed properly, accessibility audits can reveal various barriers including:
- Navigation structure issues that prevent people with disabilities from finding information
- Missing image alt-text, poorly written page titles, and incorrect subheading usage
- Color contrast ratio issues that affect people with low vision and other conditions
- Inaccessible forms that don’t function with keyboard-only navigation or screen readers
Accessibility audits should use the WCAG framework. While automated tests can be useful, human testers can find issues that automated tools won’t identify. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s four-point testing methodology ensures full conformance with WCAG 2.1, enabling government agencies to meet their compliance goals.