Can everyone who lives in your town or city use your official website with ease? In the United States, local governments must comply with federal laws that promote and protect accessibility for people with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Local governments have made significant improvements in physical accessibility and other areas. Where many fall short, however, is digital accessibility.
In many cases, citizens would prefer to access their local government’s website for a wide range of reasons. These include finding essential information (public notices, emergency alerts, regulations, programs, services, events, job postings, etc.), contacting government officials, renewing licenses, applying for permits, submitting requests, registering for recreation programs, responding to surveys and more.
Government websites make it convenient and efficient to accomplish these tasks, but many people with disabilities can’t use the website because it lacks basic accessibility features. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially if they also face barriers to visiting government offices in person or calling for information on the phone. All of a city’s residents should have equal access to online government services and information.
Accessibility laws and municipal websites
Local government websites are required to comply with the following federal accessibility laws:
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): ADA Title II “covers all activities of State and local governments regardless of the government entity’s size or receipt of Federal funding.1” It requires state and local governments to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services and activities.
- Rehabilitation Act: This act “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors.2” Section 508, a recently updated amendment to the original act, deals specifically with electronic and information technology, such as websites and electronic documents.
Local governments that don’t meet these legal obligations risk complaints, civil lawsuits, loss of federal funding and intervention from the Department of Justice (DOJ). According to adPharos, a marketing agency based in Atlanta, at least 142 local governments in the United States have been sued due to website accessibility issues since 20113.
How can you make your website compliant and do a better job of serving citizens with disabilities? The answer lies in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
WCAG 2.0 and web accessibility
WCAG was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a global network of accessibility experts whose goal is to make the internet inclusive for everyone. WCAG 2.0, released in 2008, is the world’s most commonly accepted technical requirements for web accessibility. It has 12 guidelines, divided into four categories: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust. The guidelines have three levels of accessibility: A (basic), AA (addresses most major issues) and AAA (highest).
The authorities that enforce the ADA, Section 508 and other accessibility regulations point to WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard for organizations and governments. Examples of criteria listed under Level AA include providing a text alternative for all non-text content (such as dialogue in a video), creating content that can be presented in different ways (such as a simpler layout), providing the means to change the size of text, and ensuring that colour isn’t the only visual means of conveying information.
Local governments can make these improvements efficiently and cost-effectively with the assistance of a web accessibility specialist or accessibility firm that is well versed in WCAG 2.0 requirements. Doing so not only ensures that your digital properties meet your ADA and Section 508 obligations, but it also improves overall functionality and ease of use for everyone.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice (which enforces the ADA) released an online guide for state and local governments, recommending that they develop an action plan to improve web accessibility. Its advice is still helpful for governments in 2018; here is a simplified version that, combined with the requirements listed in WCAG 2.0, provide an excellent template for making your digital properties accessible and inclusive:
- Establish a policy that your webpages will be accessible.
- Ensure that all new and modified webpages and digital content are accessible.
- Develop a plan for making your existing web content more accessible.
- Ensure that in-house staff and contractors responsible for webpage and content development are properly trained.
- Provide a way for visitors to request accessible information or services by posting a telephone number or E-mail address on your home page.
- Periodically enlist people with disabilities to test your pages for ease of use.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- ADA Update: A Primer for State and Local Governments U.S. Department of Justice, 2015
- A Guide to Disability Rights Law U.S. Department of Justice, 2009
- Accessibility Lawsuits Target Local Government Websites in Georgia adPharos, 2017