How To Improve Accessibility – Testimony by Eve Hill July 2022
Testimony of Eve Hill during Senate Hearing. She calls out the Social Security Administration intake kiosks, calls for enforcement tools among other things and ending the immunity of the federal government for its wide-ranging violations. Interesting point raised “if Access Board is given enforcement authority”. Many thanks to Bill Goren and Understanding the ADA
Thursday, July 28th, 2022</time
Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 562
“In a world in which digital communications and services happen at the speed of light, people with disabilities must not be left to rely on slow, obsolete, and expensive analog technologies,” Eve explained in written testimony. “If websites aren’t accessible to people who are blind or low-vision, if videos are not captioned for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and if kiosks are not built to communicate flexibly, people with disabilities are not just inconvenienced – they are shut out.”
On July 28th one of the leading disability rights attorneys, Eve Hill testified on accessible federal technology before the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging during its hearing entitled “Click Here: Accessible Federal Technology for People with Disabilities, Older Americans, and Veterans.”
About Eve Hill — Partner at Brown Goldstein & Levy and was formerly a Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. She has spent her career implementing the laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities.
During her testimony, Eve offered her insight on the meaning and history of technology accessibility law as it pertains to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires all federal agencies to make all their information technology accessible to people with disabilities. She also addressed areas where government oversight and accountability can be strengthened and best practices for achieving/maintaining web and technology accessibility in the federal government.
Excerpts from Testimony
- If websites aren’t accessible to people who are blind or low-vision, if videos are not captioned for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and if kiosks are not built to communicate flexibly, people with disabilities are not just inconvenienced – they are shut out.
- Many individuals with vision disabilities use screen reader software that can convert visually delivered Internet content into an audio or Braille form; however, the visually-delivered content must be properly formatted and structured for the screen reader to work effectively. For instance, a screen reader or similar assistive technology cannot “read” an image. Thus, when images appear on websites they must be paired with “alt-text” that describes the image for screen readers to read. In addition, individuals with vision and manual dexterity disabilities often cannot effectively use a mouse, so websites need to be coded to allow navigation using the keyboard.
- As the Court in Robles v. Dominos Pizza, LLC, explained, “Defendant contends that its phone line is an acceptable accessibility substitute for its webpage and App. This is not true; it is undisputed that Plaintiff waited over forty-five minutes before hanging up on at least two occasions. No person who has ever waited on hold with customer service – or ever been hungry for a pizza – would find this to be an acceptable substitute for ordering from a website.
- in February 2022, 96.8% of the top one million home pages still had accessibility barriers. Each page had an average of 50.8 accessibility errors. A user with a disability can expect to encounter one error in every 19 home page elements they use. And most of these errors are simple – low contrast text, missing alt-text for images, incorrectly labeled form inputs, empty links or buttons, and failure to identify the site’s language. If these accessible elements had been incorporated as a matter of course in the design of the site, they would have added nothing to the complexity or cost of the site. In fact, they would have made the sites work better for everyone. The WebAIM Million, The 2022 Report on the Accessibility of the Top 1,000,000 Home
- While issuing digital accessibility regulations for federal, state, and local governments and agencies is a good first step, it is also critical to issue regulations addressing the web accessibility obligations of public accommodations under Title III of the ADA. Private entities, including retail stores, restaurants, medical professionals, entertainment, schools, gyms, and service providers, play significant roles in our lives. Now that they have mostly moved their goods and services online, people with disabilities cannot afford to wait for equal digital access.
- in 2021, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation found that 30% of the most popular federal websites were not accessible and nearly half had access barriers on at least one of their most popular pages.
- If this is the result for websites – the simplest form of information and communication technology to make accessible – one need not guess at the level of accessibility of other forms of technology, such as self-help kiosks, telehealth platforms, multimedia trainings, and office equipment
- In fact, the accessibility of those types of technology is dismal. Clients of my firm, alone, are currently dealing with trainings required by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that are totally unusable by screen readers, and intake kiosks used by the Social Security Administration that are not usable by blind people. In each case, people with disabilities are being forced to rely on third parties, and even to reveal private information to strangers, such as security guards, in order to receive service at all.
- The Social Security Administration has also, as a policy matter, refused to adopt accessible technology at all. For example, it insists on wet-ink signatures on various documents required to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, in spite of the wide availability, security, and accessibility of electronic signature programs. Although the agency began accepting e-signatures temporarily as a result of litigation during the pandemic, and did so successfully for nearly 18 months, it has refused to change its policy on a permanent basis.
- For Section 508 to be effective, the federal government needs to stop the inflow of inaccessible technology into its agencies. This requires agencies to pay attention to accessibility at the beginning of a procurement or development. Agencies often rely on Voluntary Accessibility Product Template forms or other statements from vendors made during the procurement process to support their assumptions that selected products meet the Section 508 standards. Unfortunately, these statements are often aspirational, misleading, or confusing and too often do not ensure accessibility. This is particularly problematic when agencies such as the Treasury Department or GSA purchase technology that is then used across the government.
- If the Access Board is given enforcement responsibility, it must also be given appropriate authority to respond to complaints, to conduct compliance reviews, to engage in informal enforcement activities, such as public notices of violation, and to engage in formal enforcement, such as administrative compliance orders. Of course, with a staff of fewer than 30, the Access Board does not currently have the resources to meet its current responsibilities and add responsibility for oversight of federal government digital offerings.
- Congress should amend Section 508 to make clear that both taxpayers and federal employees have a private right of action to enforce the law. In addition, Congress should explicitly waive the government’s sovereign immunity to such suits – another argument that has been raised by the government but not decided by the
- Congress should ensure that agencies have strong tools to hold their vendors accountable – including contract recission, liquidated damages, indemnification, and specific performance. Congress should insist that agencies actually use those tools and requiring regular reporting on technology products that were found to be inaccessible, the vendor responsible, and the action taken to remedy the breach.