By Ashley Jenkins & Minh Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis: After ten years, the Department of Justice (DOJ) finally issued a report on the accessibility of federal government websites which exposes widespread accessibility barriers.

The adage, “Do as I Say, Not as I Do” seems to be the motto of the federal government when it comes to compliance with digital accessibility standards.  A recent report shows that many federal agencies are not complying with Section 508’s mandate that their websites be accessible even while one of their own, DOJ, seeks to impose website accessibility mandates on state and local governments and privately-owned businesses under Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

On February 21, 2023, DOJ released its first report on the federal government’s compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in ten years.  Section 508 requires federal agencies to ensure that their websites and other information and communication technologies are accessible to individuals with disabilities. Section 508 also requires the DOJ to submit a report to the President and Congress every two years regarding compliance with this requirement. 

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) blasted the recently-released data in a press release, making the following observations about the report: 

  • “One in 10 public-facing websites at major federal departments and agencies are not fully accessible for people with disabilities. Three in five internal websites at major federal departments and agencies are not fully accessible to people with disabilities.”
  • “The Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, Department of State, and Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 50 percent or less of the public-facing websites that were tested comply with federal accessibility requirements.”
  • “Some departments and agencies did not report conducting any accessibility testing of internal websites. It [is] not clear what steps departments and agencies are taking to test other types of technology covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.”
  • “DOJ found that key government agencies, including DOJ itself, as well as the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency did not have adequate ‘resources committed and/or staff trained to implement policies, processes, and procedures.’ These shortfalls in staffing were reflected in data regarding the low number of federal and contract employees directly supporting Section 508 programs in many agencies.”
  • “DOJ also found that ‘[a]gency maturity remains largely unchanged from prior reporting,’ raising concerns that, despite over a decade of technological evolution, many federal government agencies have not made efforts to improve and better integrate Section 508 compliance and ensure the federal government’s resources are available for people with disabilities, including taxpayers and federal workers.”

The findings are not surprising because ensuring that websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities requires a substantial and ongoing commitment of resources which even the federal government seems to lack.  Nonetheless, the DOJ has in the past two years ramped up its enforcement efforts to compel private businesses to comply with accessibility standards and put in place rigorous website testing and monitoring efforts.  Private plaintiffs have also been extremely active, filing a record 3,255 website accessibility lawsuits in federal court against private businesses in 2022.  This latest data from DOJ is further evidence that DOJ needs to adopt reasonable website accessibility standards for public accommodations that recognize the real challenges that businesses face in making and keeping their websites accessible. 

Edited by Kristina Launey