State CIOs Push Accessibility and User Experience Standards

Nearly one in five citizens need some kind of accommodation when accessing digital government services – and ensuring that every citizen has equal access to those services is the focus behind a new guidelines initiative of the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) calling for increased understanding and use of accessibility standards.

At the Federal level, the requirements are laid out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended in 1998) and in the Federal standards that implement the law. Broad in its definitions, Section 508 covers the blind and deaf, those who have lost or lost the use of limbs along with people afflicted with color blindness, dyslexia, slow reaction times, short-term memory issues, cognitive disabilities and near-sightedness.

But while most states have similar legislation and virtually all have IT accessibility policies in place, adoption has been slow and implementation inconsistent. Jeff Kline, program director of Statewide Electronic and Information Resources Accessibility with the Texas Department of Information Resources, said state bureaucracies are complex, widespread and cover myriad agencies, many with their own IT departments. Getting everyone on board is challenging.

A Step Towards Change

NASCIO published a pair of position papers in July and August advocating a Policy-Driven Adoption for Accessibility (PDAA) approach, which aims to:

  • Make it harder to ignore accessibility
  • Establish non-technical methods and metrics to help measure compliance
  • Provide guidance on end goals, rather than how-to instruction
  • Help accelerate marketplace innovation.

Ultimately, accessibility is part of system design, said Kline. It needs to be addressed from the beginning of every development project, with IT accessibility woven into the fabric of a product from the setting of requirements through development and testing.

Sarah Bourne, director of IT accessibility with the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology (MassIT), who also contributed to the NASCIO position papers, agreed. “A lot of what PDAA is trying to do is get people to understand accessibility is not something you do at the end,” she said. You can’t sprinkle magic accessibility dust and have it all be better at the end. You have to build it in.” That means paying attention to details, like choosing a Javascript library that meets accessibility standards, she said, and ensuring that color schemes have the necessary contrast to be viewed and understood by the colorblind.

“You don’t want to find out two weeks before the site goes live” that your colors don’t pass the test, she said.

Desarae Veit, a ‎Senior UI/UX designer with General Dynamics Information Technology, said government applications should display a color contrast ratio of 4:5:1 to ensure content is easily visible to color-blind users.

More important, color alone cannot be the only way a message is indicated to the system user. The takeaway: Messages must be conveyed in several ways and be interpreted by assistive technology, such as the braille readers or automated audio blind people use to navigate applications or websites.

Integrating Across an Enterprise

MassIT’s Bourne said it “would help a lot” if technical and business schools were including accessibility into the curriculum whenever they talk about compliance requirements.

“Accessibility is seen as being only applicable to government, so we don’t get people coming in who know anything about it,” she said. “We’ve done tons of outreach, awareness raising and training, but we always have new people coming and going.” Simply inserting the required accessibility language into IT contracts without really understanding what it means is not good enough. Jay Wyant, Minnesota’s chief information accessibility officer, and another contributor to NASCIO’s framework, acknowledges another challenge is bringing existing systems into compliance

“Enterprise systems have been a struggle for us,” he said, adding that over the past three years, the state has consolidated IT systems, employees and administrators and established a statewide project management office to ensure greater accountability for Minnesota’s major technology investments and contracts.

The biggest accessibility challenge is the state’s huge Enterprise Resource Planning systems which run accounting, human resource, workforce management and payroll, said Wyant. Enterprise software developers such as Oracle and SAP acquired other software companies through the years and many enterprise applications have been bolted together without regard to accessibility or usability. They may depend on old browsers and hardware, which can hold system owners back from change and innovation.

Wyant cited three significant developments that help make older applications more compliant with accessibility guidelines:

  • The emergence of mobile technology
  • HTML 5, the markup language for creating web site content
  • Web interface technology

Still, progress is slow. Enterprise commercial software comprises millions of lines of code, much of it written before accessibility was a consideration. Kline said developers keep putting on Band-Aids until they reach the point where the product has to be entirely revamped.

In her state, MassIT’s Bourne said, the move to web interfaces gives application developers more ways to fix legacy accessibility shortfalls.

“Before, when it was a desktop system that was the way it was. You were completely dependent on the vendor addressing whatever issues there were,” she said. “But with the web interfaces, you often have opportunities to make configurations or customizations that can address some of the problems that prevent the people from using it to do their jobs.”

PDAA Adds Insight

Kline said adding policy-driven documentation requirements can help government managers better gauge vendors’ ability to deliver accessible systems. Both government offices and vendors need to be fully familiar with the requirements so that both sides understand what is required and what it will take to deliver on that requirement.

The same holds for development of a web site. Setting down and agreeing to requirements and metrics for achieving the desired results has to happen up front. It can’t be an afterthought, Kline said.

The policy-driven approach establishes criteria for accessibility training as well as integration into business processes and organization structure.

One looming challenge facing government IT managers: How to fit cloud-based solutions and services into the accessibility picture. As cloud applications proliferate, agencies will have to monitor not just their own processes and interfaces, but also those of third-party cloud providers.

Leading the Way

The Texas Department of Information Resources issued the first solicitation using NASCIO’s PDAA approach in August 2014, for IT product and service education. Now Minnesota is launching a pilot program with the approach, and working with a number of vendors as partners.

Kline keeps an eye on accessibility work in other spheres. He noted the U.S. Department of Justice is developing new rules for web site accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which should be codified next year.

Lawsuits related to accessibility are on the upswing. Implementing a policy-driven framework can help government agencies and vendors alike protect themselves and their products from legal challenges.

This “is really what is going to drive more seriousness in accessibility and drive a lot more innovation and tools to make accessible IT more efficient,” Kline said.

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