Every year, millions of Americans rely on government websites and online platforms for essential services, information and connection. With over two billion monthly visits to federal websites, the increase in digital interaction paints a new reality: digital platforms are now the primary touchpoints between the government and its citizens.

In this context, the role of federal technology leaders is more vital than ever. The public now expects the same level of intuitive digital experiences from government platforms as they do from their favorite consumer websites and apps. This sets a high bar for federal agencies, placing accessibility at the heart of their mandates.

A closer look at the federal digital landscape paints a concerning picture. A report by the Department of Justice shows that nearly half of the most frequently visited pages on federal websites pose significant accessibility barriers to individuals with disabilities. Beyond disability, seniors, non-native speakers, and individuals with temporary impairments also struggle with inaccessible interfaces.

This reflects a broader societal issue with far-reaching consequences that hinder citizen engagement, erode public trust, and lead to the risks of costly legal challenges. The year 2024 presents a turning point for federal technology leaders to reframe digital accessibility as a strategic imperative not just to tick compliance checkboxes but to build a more equitable digital society.

Beyond inclusivity, trust and compliance, advocating for digital accessibility can foster the development of innovative technology solutions with wider applicability. These innovations will not only benefit individuals with disabilities; they can revolutionize fields from manufacturing and healthcare to education and communication for everyone.

Regulatory frameworks, best practices

To chart a course towards an inclusive digital government, federal agencies (especially technology leaders) must first equip themselves with the tools and knowledge to navigate the existing accessibility landscape. This means understanding the regulatory frameworks that define accessibility standards and exploring best practices for effective implementation.

At the heart of the federal push for digital accessibility are key regulations like Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Section 508 mandates that all federal electronic and information technology be accessible to people with disabilities, aligning closely with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

The ADA extends this requirement to state and local government services. Practically, this means federal websites must ensure features like keyboard accessibility, accessible color contrast, image alt text and screen reader compatibility. Federal tech leaders must always bear in mind that compliance is a legal and ethical responsibility with the potential for serious consequences if ignored.

Industry best practices pivot around a few core principles: universal design, regular audits, and user-centered testing. Universal design involves creating websites that are inherently accessible to all, regardless of their abilities. Conducting regular accessibility audits and seeking the input of users with disabilities in the audit process ensures that digital platforms are not only compliant but also user-friendly.

Barriers to digital accessibility

Several barriers hinder widespread digital accessibility in the federal landscape. Top among these outdated technology systems that are not designed with accessibility in mind. Many federal agencies operate on legacy platforms that are difficult and expensive to retrofit for accessibility.

Siloed departmental workflows can also impede the cohesive implementation of accessibility standards. When accessibility expertise remains trapped within isolated pockets of an agency, knowledge sharing and implementation suffer. Budgetary constraints also often limit the resources available for necessary updates or staff training.

Lastly, a lack of awareness and complacency within some tech leadership cultures undermines the prioritization of accessibility initiatives. The ‘if it isn’t obviously broken, leave it be’ mentality should not apply to accessibility. Federal tech leaders must recognize that accessibility is an ongoing process, requiring continuous awareness and improvement efforts.

Overcoming these barriers requires a concerted effort from all levels of federal technology leadership. The technology stack used to build federal online platforms should be reviewed regularly. Federal tech decision-makers must prioritize upgrades to platforms that are built to be accessible from the ground up.

To manage budget constraints, federal tech leaders should advocate for digital accessibility as more than just compliance but a key to effective public service delivery. Framing it as an investment in citizen engagement can justify budget reallocation or extra funding. Also, integrating accessibility from the start is usually more cost-effective than modifying existing systems later.

Tackling complacency and internal resistance requires a cultural shift. This involves training and awareness programs at all levels of the organization. Leaders should exemplify an accessibility-first mindset, integrating it into performance metrics and project goals. Celebrating successes in accessibility improvements can also foster a more inclusive organizational culture.

Federal agencies can leverage economies of scale by collaborating on accessibility initiatives. Sharing resources, tools, and best practices across departments can reduce costs and improve overall accessibility standards. Embracing new technologies such as AI and machine learning can aid in improving accessibility.

Building a truly inclusive digital government

In an era where digital interfaces are the primary touchpoints between the government and its citizens, the imperative for digital accessibility in federal operations has never been more crucial. By advancing digital accessibility, tech leaders in the U.S. federal sphere can ensure that the government’s digital assets are not only compliant with regulations but also resonate with the ethos of an inclusive, empathetic, and forward-thinking administration.

Ran Ronen is Co-Founder and CEO of Equally AI, a provider of no-code web accessibility products and services designed to help organizations of all sizes meet regulatory compliance.

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