As of January 2018, Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires local governments with public-facing websites to make multiple accommodations for each of several manual, cognitive and sensory impairments. The performance-based requirements apply to all posted documents, audio and video, as well web page content. Seldom have authorities found overconfidence so rampant: Of the towns, counties and agencies that think they are in compliance, a staggering number actually fall short of the mandated standards. The best way to avoid a federal investigation is to seek a portal provider that stays on top of the fast-changing requirements of Section 508.
Why It Matters
Excluding participants from its online resources puts a public organization at risk of financial penalties. (CivicPlus) It also makes good towns look bad. Compliance failures erode the public confidence that municipal bodies work tirelessly to build. It deprives them of the talent, passion and service of constituents who might otherwise be eager to contribute to projects. Shutting out a fraction of participants makes a board downright discriminatory, even if that is emphatically not the conscious intention of the board.
You Really Do Need to Outsource
Many local governments think they can take care of it themselves, trying to manually tune their software with each update to the regulations. The day after the new regulations came into effect, the magazine Governing featured its best advice to readers: “Stop Trying to Make Your Municipal Website Accessible (Manually).” The article gives the sobering magnitude of what compliance requires. One of 60 specifications reads:
“If non-text content is a test or exercise that would be invalid if presented in text, then text alternatives at least provide descriptive identification of the non-text content.” (WCAG IA)
Now imagine manually applying that requirement to your website’s landing page and all posted materials. Times 60.
Some board leaders will boast that this is a breeze for them. Indeed, their colleagues are apt to support their grandiosity enthusiastically; it makes us want to promote people into positions of leadership. As social psychology teaches us more about our habitual cognitive distortions, it has become apparent that most of us “commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence” (Harvard Business Review).
Fortunately, in this case, the question of compliance has a measureable and indisputable right answer. If someone thinks they’ve got it under control, ask questions:
- What are all of the manual, cognitive and sensory disabilities that they must accommodate?
- How have they provided more than one work-around for each?
- Do they know the difference between the Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements set forth in WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), WCAG 2.0 Level AA and WCAG 2.0 Level AAA?
- What specific accommodations have they made for color-blind users?
- Are they sure that their software and operating systems are inter-operative with assistive technologies such as refreshable Braille displays?
- How do users who can’t hold a computer mouse provide input to a public forum?
Such questions highlight the fact that this field is rife with what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns.” Before plunging into the orb of ADA issues, non-specialists don’t realize just how much is involved. Because most local governments lack expertise in this complicated field, their common sense – or common courtesy – falls short of the law. Sean Bradley, co-founder, president and CTO of the technological accessibility company StudioEye, concurs: “Accessibility cannot be achieved with a one-time fix … it is an ongoing process.” (Governing)
Keeping up with the rapid-fire additions to the regulations requires more specialized staff than most municipalities have on board, and the job calls for constant vigilance. It is not enough to have a text-to-speech feature for the blind or closed-captioning of videos. Far from it! Worse still, the law keeps changing – having undergone numerous iterations since its initial introduction in 1986. Keeping up requires both technical and political sophistication.
It is far more economical to choose a web portal provider that has already taken care of compliance. Yet, Section 508 compliance is not a feature of most of the popular public-facing web hosting services, and those that claim the feature may actually not deliver on their promise: Some of their assurances are all swagger, no substance. When a portal provider promises Section 508 compliance, it’s important to ascertain exactly what they mean when they make that claim.
How to Tell If a Portal Is Compliant
Compliance is a moving target, as the specifications change continually. With that in mind, a portal provider should be doing two things:
1. Meeting the most recent version of the requirements. The layman could not tell you what represents the very latest state-of-the-art requirements. To keep current, a portal provider should hire legal and technical experts with mastery in this area. BoardDocs is compliant with the internationally respected standards of WCAG 2.0, WCAG 2.0 Level II and WCAG 2.0 Level III. (The newest rewriting of Section 508 promotes WCAG standards from a recommendation to a requirement.)
2. Anticipating future refinements of the requirements. Leading the industry, BoardDocs actually meets regularly with OCR officials to stay abreast of next steps.
How can you tell if a portal provider meets these standards?
A provider that is up-to-date with its compliance will be able to provide evidence to that effect. While there is not yet a governmental compliance monitor in place, a vendor should be able to provide certification that it has passed an analysis by a respected third party. The third party is crucial in the absence of a governmental watchdog, as that void could be filled by a self-evaluation that does not catch the board’s own blind spots.
Moreover, it’s crucial that a portal anticipate future changes to the law and prepare for them. Do they have a relationship with the Office of Civil Rights? Do they meet regularly to learn of future developments? Or do they wait until the Justice Department comes after them because they’ve fallen short of the standards?
Your local government can comply fully with Section 508 regulations, but you can’t fall asleep at the wheel. To avoid investigations or lawsuits, a savvy portal provider can catapult you to the head of the class. But don’t be fooled: Make a portal provider back up its claims with evidence that they’ve actually got what it takes.
BoardDocs, ADA Compliance Statement.
CivicPlus, “All About the Latest 508 Requirements for Government Websites” www.civicplus.com
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” Harvard Business Review August 22, 2013.
CivicPlus, “Stop Trying to Make Your Municipal Website Accessible (Manually)” Governing (the States and Localities) January 2, 2018. Sponsored content.