The Open Government Directive & Accessibility Shortcomings

After reading GCN's article 'GSA takes a fast, free approach to Web dialogue tool' I decided to take a look at the tool in question, IdeaScale, to see what the buzz was all about. The article explains that GSA joins several Federal departments/agencies already using IdeaScale including the White House, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Departments of Labor & Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A link to the FCC's IdeaScale site representing broadband.gov public feedback site was provided and my curiosity got the best of me...

Now I don't proclaim to be a user-experience or accessibility expert, but it was quickly apparent to me that the site lacked appropriate ALT attributes in a variety of places throughout the site. I quickly visited section508.gov to ensure my understanding of Section 508 was correct:

§ 1194.22 Web-based intranet and internet information and applications.
(a) A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content) – section508.gov

Once I confirmed my understanding of the Section 508 omissions on the FCC’s IdeaScale site I began to wonder what else, from an accessibility standpoint, might be missing? I used a free, third-party application to evaluate broadband.ideascale.com (FCC's IdeaScale site for Broadband.gov Beta) and it unearthed a variety of Secion 508 "violations" that I will leave to the accessibility experts. Needless to say there were quite a few "violations" noted.

So what does all this mean in the grand scheme of things? My gut feeling is that as Federal departments and agencies rush to meet the mandates as outlined in the Open Government Directive, Section 508 compliance may have fallen through the cracks. The question now becomes will these departments and agencies that are leveraging IdeaScale (or plan to do so in the near future) bring their implementations up to “code” in terms of Section 508 compliance?

I am all for the Open Government Directive and all IdeaScale has to offer (heck, they have made it free for government agencies to leverage) but should government agencies leverage such a quick and easy tool without addressing the Section 508 shortcomings?

An interesting dilemma…what are your thoughts?

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Hmmm...I do wonder - I imagine GSA and others have looked into it. I think government must balance speed and 508 as new technology is often not quite ready. But if they have committed and taken initial steps to solving the problem and are doing it - that's good for me.

Profile Photo Sarah Bourne

Oh, where to begin?

Perfection in accessibility is very rare. Occasionally, you have to make compromise decisions to balance the usability needs of different people. But a government site should at least try. The only nod I see to accessibility here is the Skip to Main Content link, that appears only if you hover over the top line with your mouse.

There are three things you must do to have any claim to accessibility at all, and the broadband site fails all three:

Alternative text for images that have content:
The three boxes that describe the process are pictures of text, with no text alternative. The banner is an image, too. This means that screen reader users will have no idea that this is a Federal Communications Commission site or that it is called "National Broadband Plan". Ironically, the IdeaScale logo does have good alternative text; this suggests the fault lies with the FCC rather than IdeaScale.

Major sections of the the page should be identified with headings:
There is only one heading on the entire page: a level 3 heading for the Categories section. This means screen reader users can't get an overall view of what's on the page, like you can by looking at it. Screen readers let you navigate to those headings, so with no headings, there's really no way to move around the page effectively. Most screen readers only bring level one and two headings, so they wouldn't even see the one that's there.

Form fields need to have form labels:
When using a screen reader, the text surrounding a form is not read. None of the three forms on the page have any labels at all, so a screen reader user will have way of knowing whether they are in the search form (at the top), or what the "Join the Discussion box" is for, and they will be totally befuddled by the Facebook login form, that is not visible to the eye, but will be found by screen readers!

The other accessibility errors on this site might be tolerable if those three areas had been addressed.

You might ask, "What do you expect for free?" I ask in return, did they even talk to IdeaScale about fixing some of these issues? Are they really IdeaScale issues, or were they introduced in setting up this particular site?

On another level, does free make it OK to ignore laws? I think not. If we are going to be open and transparent, we should make darn sure that this openness and transparency is available to all citizens, not just the ones with full vision and manual dexterity.

Profile Photo Bill Annibell

Thank you, Sarah, for your detailed comments as it relates to the must haves in terms of accessibility. I agree, wholeheartedly, that the Open Government Directive initiatives should meet the minimum section 508 standards so that it is available to all citizens for consumption...

Thank you Gwynne, for your insights as it relates to the behind the scenes efforts. I am encouraged to hear that IdeaScale is attempting to improve its software to make it more accessible. As it relates to accessibility as a requirement...how is the Federal government engaging with the vendors in the free, 3rd party market tools space to communicate these requirements? Is it taken on a case-by-case basis, or is their a broader outreach to these "new" breed of vendors to ensure they understand the many Federally mandated requirements?

Profile Photo Sarah Bourne

Gwynne, that's great news, on two levels! First, it's great that IdeaLabs is working with you before their platform gets used more. And secondly, I like that you're seeing our role as being - at least in part - an educator or evangelist for accessibility. There is such a strong correlation between "usable" and "accessible", I'm constantly surprised by the lack of awareness in companies with an end-user focus. I hope GSA and IdeaLabs make a big deal about the accessibility improvements because it will help spread the word!

Profile Photo Lisa Kruppa

My personal opinion is that the government thumbs its nose at users of assistive technology when they allow a product that is not accessible to be used.

Sure there is an email link for people who can not use IdeaScale. I followed some of those links, some of those links go to contact forms that are not accesible.

Making a item accessible after the fact is always more difficult that if it is included in the specs to begin with. Tell me if they can make it accessible after the fact why did they not do it in the first place?
It is not difficult to do, it does require an understanding the practical appication of acccesibility; Until this happens the problem will continue.

I hope that each of you has the opprotunity to sit with a user of assistive technology when they are trying to use something that is "mostly" accessible. You will come away with an opinon that is "mostly" unacceptable.