By connecting citizens with their government and providing access to information, the web is one of the most powerful tools of democracy. Unfortunately, far too many local government websites still have one big barrier for many of their users: accessibility.
Citizens use local government websites for countless activities: learning about upcoming elections and government meetings, filing complaints, making payments, viewing materials from the local library, and more. Failing to make these websites accessible means that people with some disabilities will have a harder time participating in the local community and gaining access to important information.
Website accessibility doesn’t just benefit the one in five Americans who has a disability, however; it’s also a legal requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. For these reasons, it behooves you to make your government website more accessible to everyone who wants and needs to use it.
Why Government Website Accessibility is Important
The ADA’s Title II prohibits state and local governments from discriminating on the basis of disability for all public services and programs. In addition, if you receive federal funds, the Section 508 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, passed in 1998, requires you to make your electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Together, these two regulations form a powerful requirement for state and local governments to commit to website accessibility.
Local and state government websites provide a slate of useful programs and services to the public, from paying parking tickets to applying for jobs. People with disabilities deserve to have the same access to these activities as every other member of the public. In fact, because it’s often more difficult to make a phone call or an in-person visit with a disability, people with disabilities may be even more likely to take advantage of the internet’s convenience and speed.
Disabilities come in many forms, divided into four major categories: visual, hearing, motor, and learning. Therefore, making your website more accessible necessarily includes many responsibilities and perspectives. For example, you must ensure that your website’s color scheme has enough visual contrast for colorblind users, while also designing the website to be navigable with only a keyboard for the benefit of people with motor disabilities.
How to Make Your Government Website More Accessible
Currently, the most widely used set of standards for website accessibility are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium. If you’re not sure where to get started with accessibility for your government website, implementing WCAG is an excellent place to start.
The current version of the standards, WCAG 2.0, separates levels of accessibility into three tiers: A, AA, and AAA. Because Level AAA is not possible for all types of digital content, however, most organizations aim to fulfill the Level AA requirements.
According to the WCAG standards, accessible websites must satisfy four criteria:
- Perceivable: For starters, users must be able to perceive your website using their method of choice — whether it’s through a screen reader or with their own eyes and ears.
- Operable: Users need to be able to interact with your website and fully perform all functions, from clicking on links to viewing multimedia content.
- Understandable: Not only must your website be navigable, but users must also be able to completely understand its functionality and content.
- Robust: Your website should be usable with a variety of assistive technologies, including screen readers and magnification software.
For more information about making your website more accessible, take a look at the Bureau of Internet Accessibility website and blog, where you’ll find the latest news and guidelines about online accessibility. BOIA has a free website scanning tool that measures your compliance with the WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards to give you the foundational knowledge of where your strengths and weaknesses are and what ground you still have to cover.