The Department of Justice (DOJ) has released its first Section 508 web compliance report since 2012.
For web accessibility advocates, it’s a big step — and long overdue. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies to ensure that their information and communications technology (ICT) is accessible for people with disabilities.
Section 508 also requires the Attorney General to submit a report summarizing federal and state compliance every two years. However, the DOJ has not fulfilled that obligation for more than a decade.
DOJ prepared its web accessibility report after bipartisan pressure
In November 2022, a bipartisan group of legislators led by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) sent a letter to the DOJ, urging the Attorney General to submit a report. The agency pledged to submit a report based on data collected by the Government Services Agency (GSA).
“Despite legal requirements, these reports had not been issued for a decade, leaving Congress without critical information about how the federal government addresses accessibility of its technology,” the Senators wrote in a joint statement.
“We have a long way to go to make all aspects of the federal government accessible for older adults, people with disabilities, and veterans, but getting this information from [the] DOJ is a critical first step.”
The Justice Department’s Section 508 compliance report was completed in January 2023 and became publicly available on February 21.
Key Takeaways from the DOJ’s Section 508 Compliance Report
The Section 508 report is largely based on self-reported data from agencies listed in the Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act, which includes 24 federal agencies (including the DOJ itself).
As the authors note, CFO agencies must provide information to the GSA every six months regarding their Section 508 compliance. That includes efforts taken to comply with the Revised Section 508 standards, which include most of the Level A/AA technical criteria from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
But while agencies must provide information regarding compliance, the DOJ notes that many agencies may rely on automated testing. Automated tools cannot verify conformance with all WCAG Level AA standards (and by extension, the Revised Section 508 standards).
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at the data.
Federal digital accessibility programs aren’t maturing
Overall, self-reported data shows that 86% of federal internet and intranet web pages conformed with WCAG Level AA.
However, federal digital accessibility programs haven’t developed much. CFO agencies self-report the maturity of their accessibility efforts, a broad metric that includes considerations for product acquisition, lifecycle, testing, complaints, and training.
Per the DOJ:
Only 6 agencies reported an increase in their program maturity over the past 12 months.
- 2 agencies reported a decrease in overall maturity.
- 16 agencies reported no change.
- Agencies tested only 2.3% more web pages since February 2022.
From agency to agency, WCAG conformance varied considerably. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported 100% conformance for web pages, while the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reported 0.3% conformance.
PDF accessibility remains a concern for federal agencies
The report also addresses web-delivered documents — specifically, Adobe PDFs, which government agencies frequently use to collect data from users.
To assess document accessibility, the DOJ measured WCAG conformance among the “Top 10 Downloads" reported by each agency:
- 68% of top downloads were non-accessible PDFs
- 23% of top downloads were accessible PDFs
- 9% of downloads were not PDFs.
PDF accessibility isn’t optional. WCAG contains standards called success criteria that can apply to most digital content, including web documents. If PDFs aren’t machine readable — or if they don’t have appropriate tags — they may be unusable for people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies.
Most agencies need to improve their accessibility statements
The Revised Section 508 standards also require agencies to publish an accessibility statement detailing their efforts, goals, and known accessibility barriers.
According to the DOJ, 55% of agencies have accessibility statements that require remediation. A Section 508 statement may be non-compliant for several reasons:
- The statement may not indicate when the page was last updated or reviewed.
- The statement may not include a Section 508 point-of-contact.
- The statement may not provide a feedback mechanism for users.
- The agency may not have an accessibility statement.
Many people with disabilities search for accessibility statements when they encounter issues with a website. If an accessibility statement is missing or incomplete, it’s not a helpful resource — and currently, most federal agencies aren’t fulfilling their obligation to their users.
Creating a Framework for Digital Compliance
In recent years, the Justice Department has stepped up enforcement of web accessibility compliance issues. That includes potential violations of Section 508 and other non-discrimination laws (namely, Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act).
Both public and private organizations should take steps to adopt the best practices of WCAG. At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we’re dedicated to providing a proven framework for sustainable compliance — and better online experiences for all users, regardless of their abilities.