A new analysis reveals wide variation in 186 United States federal government agencies’ compliance with web-accessibility law. That is not a surprise, since the required compliance monitoring every two years by the attorney general has not been taking place. As a result, federal website visitors—especially the elderly and disabled—experience unnecessary difficulty and failure. The analysis pinpoints thousands of specific improvements the agencies could make on their web pages.
United States federal government agencies are required by law to make their information technology, including websites, accessible, namely conforming to standards of disability-friendly, age-friendly, and otherwise inclusive design.
The attorney general is required to issue biennial reports on federal agencies’ compliance with this obligation. The next report is due in August 2022.
However, the attorney general never issued the mandatory 2014, 2016, 2018, or 2020 report. The 2012 report is the last one published. In June 2022, five U.S. senators complained about this failure to the attorney general.
Even the 2012 report, though over 45,000 words in length, did not do what the law requires. The report must contain
information on … the state of Federal department and agency compliance. But the 2012 report describes only agencies’ claims about their own compliance. The attorney general summarized, but did not verify, those claims.
In June 2021, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation published Improving Accessibility of Federal Government Websites by Ashley Johnson and Daniel Castro. That report made up for some of the deficit in the attorney general’s reporting. The foundation tested three pages each of the 72 most popular federal executive-branch websites with Axe DevTools, an open-source accessibility software package created by Deque. Human testers, too, evaluated many of the home pages. Combining those tests, the report gave scores to the pages and concluded that 48% of the websites were less than fully compliant with accessibility standards.
Findings for 2022
In July 2022 I used the software packages Testaro and Testilo to test and score the home pages of federal executive agencies. The agencies included the same popular ones tested in 2021, but, because all federal websites, not only popular ones, are required to be accessible, I added more than a hundred other agencies catalogued by the Library of Congress, bringing the total to 186 agencies.
The tests included the same Deque tests used by Johnson and Castro in 2021, plus, for comprehensiveness, more tests, mostly from software packages created by IBM, Utah State University, Level Access, Siteimprove, and Squiz Labs, bringing the total to 1075 tests. Human testing was not performed, so the tests could not detect all of the accessibility problems detected in 2021, but thousands of problems were identified.
The results are shown in a table at the end of this page.
The tests found accessibility problems even on the best-scoring pages. Here are examples from the top five pages:
- The National Mediation Board home page, when displayed on a narrow (e.g., smartphone) screen, has a menu that can be opened and closed. But the button for closing it is identified only by an x-like times symbol, not by any word. A blind user, listening to page content read aloud, would not know that the button closes the menu, and a user without much browsing experience might not know that the symbol means
close. In contrast, the Office of Management and Budget home page labels a similar button with the word
Close, to aid comprehension.
- The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board home page contains an announcement of a board meeting. The announcement is actually a link (an HTML
aelement), but it has been given a
buttonand it looks like a button. Links and buttons are different, and they behave differently. Confusing them can confuse users. In addition, the
Board Meeting …text is actually a picture of text, with hidden identical text—an unnecessary complication. In contrast, the Department of Veterans Affairs home page contains a similar button that looks and behaves like a button.
- The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board home page contains summaries of four topics. After each summary is a link that says
Read more…. So, there are four links to different destinations, but they all say the same thing, and what they say is cryptic. It fails to answer the question: Read more about what? An accessible link would explain where it is taking you (e.g.,
Read more about adverse actions), and would not rely on you guessing that it relates to the text that preceded the link. Screen readers used by blind and low-vision persons can read all the links aloud as a single list, without any intervening text, so making links self-sufficient is especially helpful for users with vision disabilities. In contrast, the Department of Energy home page also contains several news summaries, each followed by a
Learn morelink, but in this case the link coding includes a detailed label that would be read aloud, such as
Read more about DOE Welcomes New Biden-Harris Administration Appointees.
- The Social Security home page contains numerous images, such as a thunderstorm cloud accompanying a link to
Closings & Emergencies. They are marked as decorative, meaning that intermediate software that analyzes the page can ignore those images. But that may be questionable. One image contains the slogan
WE CAN DO THIS, but no equivalent text is provided. Another shows a girl using a laptop computer, but there is no text describing it, leaving the user without that extra hint to help figure out what
broadbandare. Accessible design aims to serve a wide range of users, including those with little education and little knowledge of recent technology. In contrast, the Department of Agriculture home page tells listening users what the images show. For example, the photograph illustrating one link is coded with this text:
A scientist looks through a microscope in a laboratory. The slide she is observing is magnified on the monitor beside her.
- The Bureau of Engraving and Printing home page contains long links to other pages. For example, one link says
Shop Online: Purchase uncut currency sheets, Lucky Money notes, specialty products and more.Some users who cannot, or prefer not to, navigate manually use their voices to navigate. They might, for example, ask to follow the link to
Purchase uncut currency sheets. But that would not work here, because the link is coded to recognize only
Shop Onlineas the identifier of the link. For accessibility, links must recognize all of the text within them. In contrast, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics home page also contains long links, such as
Air Travel Consumer Report: Consumer Complaints Down from April, Still More Than 200 Percent Above Pre-Pandemic Levels. But the entire texts are contained in the links.
The pages in the middle range of scores typically have deficiencies of many kinds. For example, the Peace Corps home page got failure reports or warnings of 58 types. One example is its failure on the spontaneous-motion test. Some disabilities make users vulnerable to disorientation or seizures if a web page contains uncontrollable motion. For maximum accessibility, nothing on a page would move until and unless the user asked for motion. But the Peace Corps home page, as soon as you open it, autoplays a succession of twelve video recordings. One of them even shows a hectic close-up of soccer players, shot with an unstable camera. The video playing continues for 35 seconds. And you cannot stop it, except by closing the page. In contrast, the Army home page offers a
featured video but does not play it until you press the play button.
The pages with the worst scores fail spectacularly on only one test, implying that by resolving a single class of problems an agency could drastically improve the score. For example, the Customs and Border Protection home page has a very high score on the
log test, because, while being tested, it triggers hundreds of browser complaints about security errors, such as
Refused to apply inline style because it violates the following Content Security Policy directive: "style-src-attr 'self'". Incorrect coding puts not only security but also accessibility at risk, because it may prevent a page from working as intended and may interfere with the special tools that some users with disabilities employ. Therefore, violations of technical standards, even when not strictly related to accessibility, contribute to a score.
This analysis reveals that many federal executive-branch websites have accessibility deficiencies in 2022. Not a single home page was found that could not be made more accessible.
But federal website home pages, even when they have accessibility problems, also exhibit helpful accessibility features, demonstrating that accessibility knowledge exists within the agencies and could be leveraged for website improvements.
Agencies differ greatly in website accessibility. There is a 78-to-1 ratio between the best and worst scores.
Automated tests, though not perfect and not complete, can discover and diagnose many accessibility defects at trivial cost. Therefore, the attorney general does not need a large budget in order to test the websites of federal agencies and report the results, instead of merely trusting agencies to assess themselves.
In the following table, the lower the score, the better. A score of 0 would indicate that a page passed all the tests. A perfect score is unlikely, though, because even suspected accessibility problems add small amounts to a score.
The first link on each row will take you to the page that was tested, and the second link goes to a detailed report explaining the page’s discovered or suspected defects and how the score was computed.