U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) this week released Unlocking the Virtual Front Door, a report detailing the findings of an 11-month investigation that found widespread failure across the federal government to ensure that federal technology is accessible for people with disabilities, older adults, and veterans. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal technology to be accessible for, and usable by, people with disabilities. However, Senator Casey’s report found that federal websites, particularly within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), are out of compliance—creating barriers for people with disabilities who rely on federal technology for essential services, including health care, employment, Social Security, and more.
Specifically, the report found that:
- The VA has repeatedly failed to make its technology accessible for people with disabilities;
- Federal technology presents accessibility barriers for people with disabilities at departments and agencies across the government;
- Federal departments and agencies can take years to address Section 508 violations; and
- Insufficient oversight and enforcement of Section 508 has led to a lack of compliance, resulting in federal technology that is inaccessible for people with disabilities.
Senator Casey is also releasing 12 recommendations that set out solutions for the federal government to address these shortfalls. The recommendations call on Congress to consider amending Section 508 in order to adapt to advances in technology, inspectors general to incorporate Section 508 compliance into their oversight plans, and federal departments and agencies to appoint accessibility officers with direct responsibility for adherence to Section 508.
“For years, I have been leading efforts to ensure that federal technology is accessible to people with disabilities and that the public is informed about the government’s efforts to make it accessible. My report shows we still have a long way to go,” said Senator Casey. “The entire federal government needs to wake up to this issue because a whole-of-government approach is what we need to remedy it. We would not ask someone using a wheelchair to walk up the courthouse steps, but we are doing something similar when we ask people with disabilities to use federal websites that are not accessible. My report and recommendations provide those of us in the federal government with concrete steps to take so we can make the much-needed accessibility improvements that people with disabilities, older adults, and veterans deserve.”
Unlocking the Virtual Front Door builds on Senator Casey’s work conducting oversight of longstanding accessibility issues across government agencies, including the VA. Using stories of people with disabilities, older adults, and veterans from Pennsylvania and across the Nation, the report shows how inaccessible federal technology creates barriers and locks people out of services, such as filing taxes and receiving a return, health care, education services, pension benefits, and more.
The investigation used internal VA data that identified hundreds of thousands of individual Section 508 violations, including a report VA produced in response to Senator Casey’s bipartisan VA Website Accessibility Act that found that roughly 90 percent of VA websites are not fully Section 508 compliant. For example, VA’s Pharmacy Benefits Management Services website and associated webpages contained more than 6,400 Section 508 violations. This included its webpage on Opioid Overdose Education and Naloxone Distribution, which contains critical information on preventing opioid overdoses and instructions on obtaining and using VA naloxone. The report also recommended that federal agencies maintain capacity to continuously evaluate accessibility barriers after the investigation identified a canceled VA contract that has left the department unable to scan its websites for Section 508 violations, and meet legally required reporting requirements, for more than a year.
In 2020, Senator Casey passed the bipartisan VA Website Accessibility Act that required VA to report on the accessibility of the Department’s websites and kiosks. Since then, he has worked in a bipartisan and bicameral fashion and led letters to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Justice, and the Government Accountability Office and held a hearing in the Special Committee on Aging to examine this issue in-depth. Because of his efforts, the DOJ committed to fulfilling their obligation as mandated by Section 508 to send a report to Congress on web accessibility across the federal government.
Read the report here.
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