Accessibility and New Media at HHS
by Henry Claypool
The public’s growing expectation that their government will use new online technologies to communicate with them coincides with today’s tighter budgets. More than ever, the public expects that we do more with less.
When we use new media tools, it's more important than ever that the information we provide for all Americans to access can indeed be accessed by all Americans – both inside and outside the federal government.
The Accessibility of HHS new media matters! Now, more than ever, as a result of Executive Order 13548, HHS and our partners across the federal government are working to recruit and retain employees with disabilities. Furthermore as “the United States government’s principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services,” our agency is a clearinghouse of information vital to the well being and quality of life of Americans with disabilities.
Although the information is the same regardless of the media, users with disabilities draw upon different assistive technologies to access the information they require. For instance, people who are blind navigate web pages using a screen reader, such as JAWS, which does exactly what you think it would. As blind users navigate a web page with their keyboard, the screen reader tells them what is on the screen. They hit “Tab” to jump around to different parts of the webpage. What a webpage reads like to someone who is blind is often very different than how a webpage reads to a sighted user.
Technical steps have to be taken in the design process of building websites and applications to ensure that blind users can access and easily navigate them. For government webpages this is not only the ethical thing to do, it - as you probably know- is the law. Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires:
- when Federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, Federal employees with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access and use by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities
- individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency, have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.
Adherence to this is what we call Section 508 compliance. Compliance is far easier and more cost-efficient when it is designed from the get-go.
While the Federal government is bound by Section 508, it is less well known that private companies building online tools and applications must meet a more general standard, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, when they receive federal funding to provide programs and services to the public. Many private companies building new media tools in the private sector simply aren't aware of accessibility needs and requirements. This needs to change. We encourage developers and companies to incorporate accessibility standards into the design and development process from the beginning and to keep in mind the broad universe of potential customers.
One way to shift the conversation is to start at home. In the emails that we send to each other, in the documents we share and in the free online tools we incorporate into our websites, we should ensure that our actions hold true to Department’s mission and that the information we generate is available for everyone including our co-workers. In doing so, we create a government that is more open and collaborative, not only with the American people, but also for the federal workforce. In order to increase accessibility awareness among the new media community, we need to lead the accessibility conversation by example.
For more information about Section 508 and the web see the following links:
- HHS.gov Section 508
- Addressing Accessibility in Social Media
- Accessibility Testing Results of Web2.0 Tools
Henry Claypool is the Director of the HHS Office on Disability. His full office location acronym is HHS/OS/OD.
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