Over 40 million Americans have a disability, yet many organizations, including some Federal government agencies, fail to prioritize or even consider Accessibility when designing their websites. Though legislation requires Federal Government Websites be accessible to people with disabilities, many are not, which makes it more difficult for certain individuals to obtain government information, access government services, and participate in civic activity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have been unable to access government services in person, making web accessibility even more important.
“Accessible websites” are designed such that the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from using the Internet are eliminated, as web developers typically fail to take into account that not every user is able to see and hear content or use a keyboard and mouse to navigate their sites. As such, websites that rely only on those tools create issues for users with disabilities, particularly the 11 million American adults who are hearing impaired and 7 million with low-vision issues.
Creating an accessible website entails adhering to accessible-design principles, such as using high-contrast colors, providing text alternatives to audio and visual content, avoiding the use of flashing animations that might cause seizures, and using labels for buttons so people using a screen reader can navigate the site. Not only does accessible design enable people with disabilities to navigate websites but it also helps all users navigate websites more easily.
While some federal agencies do adhere to current web accessibility standards, most federal agencies could improve their web accessibility for people with disabilities. Indeed, this report finds that almost half of the most popular federal websites (48 percent) failed a standard accessibility test on at least one of their three most frequently visited pages. To ensure all citizens can access government services and important information online, the federal government should do the following:
- Create a federal website accessibility test lab.
- Launch a website accessibility “sprint” to fix known problems.
- Host a “hackathon” aimed at developing artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for web accessibility.
- Make reports on Section 508 compliance publicly available.
- Expand the Digital Analytics Program (DAP) to offer real-time accessibility testing.
Best Practices for Accessible Websites
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been developing accessibility standards since 1997, having published the first version of its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in 1999. W3C creates web standards for developers that are drawn from global best practices and follow an iterative, multi-stakeholder process of working drafts individuals and organizations around the world are able to review. The end result is a set of standards designed to be understood by developers and implementable in a variety of websites, web content, and web applications.
To develop WCAG, W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative works with industry, the disabled community, government, research institutions, and educators. The standards are cross-disability and include accessibility for users with visual impairments, hearing impairments, mobility or dexterity impairments, cognitive or neurological disabilities, and photosensitive seizure disorders. W3C significantly updated its accessibility standards in 2008 with its publication of WCAG 2.0. It has since released updated standards in 2018 with WCAG 2.1, and plans to publish its latest version, WCAG 2.2, in 2021.
WCAG 2.0 and its subsequent iterations lay out three levels of conformance to web accessibility standards: A, AA, and AAA. Level A is the minimum level of conformance, AA indicates a higher level of conformance, and AAA is the highest level. W3C recommends websites achieve Level AA conformance because it is not possible to achieve AAA for all types of content.
Current Federal Accessibility Requirements
Federal websites are subject to the legislative requirements in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1998, which requires the General Services Administration (GSA) to ensure federal electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities, including federal employees and members of the public alike.
The U.S. Access Board, established in Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act, is tasked with publishing and updating standards for developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology. The Board consists of 13 members appointed by the president, the majority of whom must be people with disabilities, as well as the heads of each of the executive departments, the United States Postal Service, and GSA.
The current Section 508 standards, which the Access Board last updated in 2018, use WCAG 2.0 Level A and Level AA success criteria and conformance requirements as the federal government’s web accessibility standard.
Section 508 also requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to submit biennial reports to the president and Congress evaluating the extent to which the electronic and information technology federal agencies use is accessible for people with disabilities and making recommendations for improvement. However, DOJ is not required to make these reports available to the public, and has not done so since 2012.
ITIF tested the most popular federal websites to measure agencies’ compliance with Section 508’s web accessibility standards. To identify the most popular federal websites, we used the “Majestic Million,” a free online service that ranks the most popular websites in the world based on how many unique IP addresses refer to a particular domain. It publishes its “Fresh Index” daily, which ranks sites over a rolling 90-day period. For this report, we used the dataset from the Fresh Index downloaded on March 1, 2021.
We first filtered the top 10,000 entries in the Majestic Million list with a .gov or .mil top-level domain. We then reviewed these sites and excluded those for state or local government from our analysis. We included only executive branch departments, sub-agencies, and bureaus while excluding legislative and judicial branch websites and those for independent agencies. Additionally, we excluded all subdomains of federal websites (except for the popular federal website ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) and all federal government websites that either had been retired, failed to load, redirected to subdomains, or redirected to new pages whose domains were either unranked or we had already included.
Next, to ensure that we did not miss any popular federal government websites (including those without a .gov or .mil top-level domain, such as those that end in .org, .com, or .edu), we reviewed analytics.usa.gov—a GSA website that reports government website usage data for sites participating in the DAP). On March 1, 2021, we downloaded data for visits to all domains over the previous 30 days. As none of the federal government websites ending in .org, .com, or .edu were for executive branch departments, sub-agencies, or bureaus that ranked in the top 10,000 entries in the Majestic Million list, none were included in the final assessment.
For this report, we identified 72 U.S. federal government websites, and used the “axe DevTools” browser extension, a tool that scans a webpage for common accessibility issues. To avoid unfairly penalizing websites, the report only scores websites based on confirmed issues (which the extension lists as “automatic”) and not potential issues (listed as “review”), and on issues that violated WCAG 2.0 Level A or Level AA standards, the current federal government standards for accessibility. Whenever axe DevTools found a confirmed issue that violated these guidelines, we reduced that website’s accessibility score by 1 point per issue to produce a final score of between 0 and 100.
We first tested each of the 72 U.S. government websites’ homepages. We then scanned their second and third most popular pages using the same extension. To identify these pages, we used Moz Link Explorer, which ranks a domain’s top pages. We did not include pages that were broken, inaccessible, archived, or were simply PDFs. As a result, not all of the websites were included in the assessments of second and third pages.
Because this automated accessibility test was only able to detect whether text alternatives to audio and visual content existed, and not whether those alternatives provided accurate descriptions of audio and visual content, we also conducted a qualitative assessment of both the top-scoring homepages (i.e., those that earned a perfect score of 100 in the technical assessment) and the bottom-scoring homepages (i.e., scoring 75 or lower). This entailed navigating these homepages using a keyboard and a screen reader, reviewing captions for video content, and checking for other accessibility issues such as flashing elements or low-contrast colors.
In addition to our technical assessment of federal government websites, we interviewed individuals representing stakeholders such as private-sector companies, disability advocates, and standards-setting organizations. We used the findings from these interviews to inform our policy recommendations for the federal government.
After testing the 50 most popular nongovernment websites from the Majestic Million list, we determined that a reasonable benchmark for passing the accessibility test was a score of 90. Websites with this score may have up to 10 confirmed accessibility issues that should be fixed but are generally in close compliance with the WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines.
This report finds that 50 of the 72 federal websites (70 percent) passed the accessibility test for their homepage. Table 2 presents the score each website earned for its homepage. Of the 65 federal websites whose second and third most popular pages we scanned, 34 (52 percent) passed the accessibility test for all three pages. Tables 3 and 4 present the score each website earned for its second and third most popular pages, respectively. Table 1 shows the average score for each of the 65 domains, as well as whether all three of their pages passed an accessibility test.
Table 1: Popular federal government websites ranked by accessibility (2021)
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