Duckworth, Durbin Join Bipartisan Effort led by Casey to Demand Answers from Department of Justice on Lack of Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities
[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) joined U.S. Committee on Aging Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) and a bipartisan group of Senators in sending a letter to U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding information on web accessibility across the federal government.
“On behalf of the 26 percent of Americans living with a disability, including the 40 percent of people over age 65 who have a disability, we write to urge DOJ to take immediate steps to meet its obligations and once again issue these biennial reports… Without regular reports, Congress, taxpayers and agencies themselves lack a crucial source of feedback for identifying and resolving longstanding accessibility issues,” wrote the Senators.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the federal government to make all its information technology accessible to people with disabilities. The law also requires DOJ to publicly report on the federal government’s compliance with accessibility standards every two years. However, DOJ has not provided a publicly available report since 2012, leaving taxpayers in the dark about the progress government agencies are making toward meeting accessibility standards. That 2012 report reflected serious gaps in accessibility across the federal government and the Senators are demanding DOJ address these issues for people with disabilities.
Along with Duckworth, Durbin and Casey, the letter was signed by U.S. Senate Aging Committee Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-SC) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as well as U.S. Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC).
The latest report on federal government accessibility compliance in 2012 included recommendations for federal agencies to meet accessibility requirements, including appointing “Section 508 coordinators” and establishing “[Section] 508 offices or programs” to ensure every agency is equipped to meet the accessibility standards set by the Rehabilitation Act. A recent third party report from 2021 found that 30 percent of the most popular federal website homepages did not pass standard accessibility test.
A full text of the letter is available here and below:
The Honorable Merrick Garland
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
Dear Attorney General Garland:
It has come to our attention that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not reported on the federal government’s compliance with accessibility standards for information technology over the last decade, despite statutory requirements for it to do so biennially. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (herein the “Act”) requires government electronic and information technology to be accessible for individuals with disabilities. In addition, Section 508 of the Act states that, every two years, “the Attorney General shall prepare and submit to the President and Congress a report containing information on and recommendations regarding the state of Federal department and agency compliance.” On behalf of the 26 percent of Americans living with a disability, including the 40 percent of people over age 65 who have a disability, we write to urge DOJ to take immediate steps to meet its obligations and once again issue these biennial reports.
The last publicly available DOJ report on Section 508 compliance is from 2012. The 2012 report identified substantial gaps in Section 508 compliance across the federal government and included recommendations for agencies to meet their accessibility requirements. For example, DOJ reported “mixed levels of success” with general processes for Section 508 implementation and recommended that agencies increase training, appoint 508 coordinators, and establish 508 offices or programs. The 2012 report also found that agency components often used “basic contract requirements” during procurement instead of specific Section 508 accessibility standards. The report recommended the use of specific language along with the development of procurement policies for both Section 508 compliance and product testing for accessibility by agency officials. Furthermore, the report found that approximately 30 percent of agency components had policies and procedures for reporting Section 508 complaints. It recommended establishing specific procedures and widely distributing information on how to file a complaint.
The 2012 report’s findings provided an important examination of the progress the federal government made toward meeting its obligations under Section 508. It also provided crucial recommendations for improving federal compliance. Without regular reports, Congress, taxpayers, and agencies themselves lack a crucial source of feedback for identifying and resolving longstanding accessibility issues. While not a substitute for DOJ’s government-wide evaluations, a recent congressionally mandated report by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) showed that, as of 2021, just eight percent of VA internet sites and six percent of VA intranet sites fully complied with Section 508 requirements. The lack of fully accessible websites at VA is a potential barrier for the one-quarter of all veterans with a service-connected disability, and may well be a harbinger of similar shortfalls at other federal agencies and departments. Third-party groups also have identified ongoing accessibility concerns with federal technology, demonstrating the need for additional oversight. For example, a 2021 report found that 30 percent of the most popular federal websites did not pass an automated accessibility test for their homepage and 48 percent of those sites failed the test on at least one of their three most popular pages. Furthermore, one-third of those sites did not have easily discoverable contact information to report accessibility issues.
Accordingly, we ask you to resume your agency’s biennial reports on Section 508 compliance across the federal government. We also ask that you answer the following questions by July 29, 2022:
- Why did DOJ stop issuing biennial reports on Section 508 compliance?
- Given the absence of biennial reports, does DOJ believe it is satisfying its data collection and reporting obligations under Section 508?
- Has DOJ collected Section 508 compliance data more recently than 2012? If so, when? If not, why not?
- Has DOJ issued recommendations or feedback to other federal agencies on their Section 508 compliance?
- Does DOJ have the resources and personnel necessary to comply with the law and issue these reports?
- How does DOJ plan to begin meeting its biennial reporting requirement under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act? Please include a detailed timeline indicating when DOJ plans to notify federal departments that it plans to conduct a survey; when it plans to send that survey; and when it plans to issue a report to Congress and the President detailing the results of the survey, along with its recommendations.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
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