In a recently published letter, members of Congress have continued to urge the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to make its websites more accessible for people with disabilities.
The letter, published on October 7, 2022, is part of an ongoing (and remarkably public) discussion between the VA agency and Congress.
In June of 2022, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), who chairs the U.S. Senate Aging Committee, released a report showing that only 10% of the VA’s websites were accessible. In a bipartisan, bicameral letter, Casey and other committee leaders expressed concern that the websites failed to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
An Overview of the VA’s Alleged Web Accessibility Problem
The Rehabilitation Act includes technical standards based on version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are widely considered the international standards for digital accessibility.
The letter indicated several points of concern:
- In March, VA officials allegedly indicated that the agency was still working to resolve "hundreds of thousands" of Section 508 compliance issues.
- The agency had been unable to audit its web content for Section 508 compliance since October 2021 due to a “lapsed contract.” No details about the lapsed contract were immediately available.
- The VA sought Section 508 waivers for some ongoing projects, which included a new electronic health record system.
“This lack of compliance is a problem for the one-quarter of all veterans with a service-connected disability,” the letter reads, “as well as the 26 percent of the general public with a disability, including veterans, VA employees and people who might seek information from the Department on behalf of a veteran.”
In June, Congress urged the VA to outline its remediation strategy, including the process used to select subcontractors for Section 508 testing.
Congress continues to push the VA to make accessibility improvements
The VA responded to the original letter, detailing some of the efforts taken to remediate web accessibility issues. However, in their October response, Casey and other congresspeople noted several remaining points of concern.
“We greatly appreciate your efforts to improve the accessibility of VA’s technology and the significant amount of information your staff undertook to provide information in response to our questions,” Senator Casey’s most recent letter reads. “Yet, there is clearly more work to do, as evidenced by Mr. Ron Biglin’s statement to the Aging Committee.”
“Mr. Biglin, a blind Pennsylvania Air Force veteran, reported that the VA’s health portal, My HealtheVet, does not work with screen-reading software the Department provided him.”
The letter makes several additional requests for information and urges the VA to “conduct outreach to a diverse array of disability groups beyond existing relationships with Veterans Service Organizations.”
Related: What Is a VPAT and How Is It Used?
What Organizations Can Learn from the VA’s Web Accessibility Issues
In December 2020, Congress passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act, which requires the VA to provide reports to Congress concerning the accessibility of VA websites.
However, the VA has an enormous technology infrastructure, and despite legal mandates, many VA websites have crucial accessibility issues. Of course, the best way to ensure compliance with Section 508, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and other digital accessibility laws is to prioritize inclusive design from the first stage of product development — but when at-scale remediation is necessary, organizations must have a solid remediation strategy.
Accessibility remediation requires a strategy — and a reasonable timeline
According to Senator Casey and other committee leaders, the VA’s remediation timelines are concerning. For example, the National Cemetery Administration’s updated remediation plan aims to fix 950 electronic documents with accessibility issues by 2026 — which translates to about one remediation per day.
And while digital compliance should always be a priority, Casey notes that the VA has an especially important obligation to provide accessible content within a reasonable timeframe.
“We want to ensure that all disabled veterans, and the VA employees who work for them, are on a level playing field when accessing technology,” the members of Congress wrote.
Strategizing for Section 508 Compliance
The VA’s accessibility problem isn’t new, but it’s certainly unfortunate: Section 508 establishes clear requirements for testing, remediation, and training, and government agencies have an obligation to follow those rules.
That means auditing content with automated tools and manual tests. Manual testing is typically performed by individuals who have earned the Department of Homeland Security’s Trusted Tester certification, which uses a unified testing process with consistent tools and a standardized reporting format.
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we use a four-point hybrid testing methodology that combines automated and manual tests. We believe this approach provides the highest possible level of conformance with WCAG and compliance with Section 508, the ADA, and other non-discrimination laws.