Building Digital Accessibility for City Government
Digital government continues to grow, changing the way that residents and government workers interact with everything from communications to completing common services that used to require in-person visits. The convenience and time savings that digital tools provide for governments make engagement with more communities easier.
But in increasing that community reach, governments are facing many previously unconsidered concerns in providing information and services in a way that is accessible for their residents with disabilities. That’s why the recent Presidential order to increase compliance with Americans with Disability Act (ADA) regulations is creating a transformative moment for governments as they continue to evolve their digital services. Governments are finding that they must increase digital accessibility in order to meet the needs of all their residents.
In a recent webinar sponsored by Granicus, Karen Pellegrin, Citywide Digital Accessibility Coordinator for the City and County of Denver, CO, gave insight into how their digital government services approached this challenge and provided tips for how other governments can begin to address accessibility concerns.
Digital accessibility and how it applies to government
For most government organizations, the resident experience with digital government is centered around websites. These critical front doors for governments deliver public services, programs, and activities. But websites are two-way streets. It isn’t enough for governments to provide these services and information, they must also make sure that the public can easily access them.
Federal ADA regulations prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. So, as a result, websites must have alternate digital means of access to those same public services, programs, and activities in order to meet varying needs of those with disabilities, whether there are standards in place or not.
Understanding the scope of accessibility and educating
The initial issues Pellegrin said that Denver faced in creating increased digital accessibility was handling the scope of how many agencies were impacted by this issue. With nearly 55 agencies with applications, websites, email, internal hubs, and more, the first step was educating about what accessibility means.
“For us, digital accessibility is about removing barriers,” said Pellegrin. “Federal Section 508 might be federal, but it still impacts state and local governments. In the beginning there was a lot of education about what we needed to know. The laws around accessibility and WCAG 2.0 have been around since 2008. ADA is even further back, going into place in 1990, but that really only addressed physical spaces at that point. So it became about training the trainers.”
Training, tracking, and communication were three key guiding principles for Pellegrin, even in the early stages.
“We should have been doing this sooner,” she said. “But you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Creating POUR Website Design
The approach that Pellegrin’s team took in tackling accessibility issues started in 2015 with a dedication to what she calls “Universal Design” creating digital solutions that meet the needs of all residents, including those with disabilities or those who are non-English speakers.
For websites, that universality came from guidelines in the WCAG 2.0 standards known as “POUR,” an anagram for:
Providing information and user interfaces that were perceivable by all users including text alternatives equivalents for non-text content. These could include icons, buttons, and graphics; description of data represented on charts, diagrams, and illustrations; brief descriptions of non-text content such as audio and video files; or labels for form controls, input, and other user interface components.
Allowing for operable user interface from a keyboard, as well as a mouse. This means requiring keyboard access to all functionality, including form controls, input, and other user interface components. Pellegrin added that meeting this requirement helps keyboard users, including people using alternative keyboards such as keyboards with ergonomic layouts, on-screen keyboards, or switch devices. It also helps people using voice recognition (speech input) to operate websites and to dictate text through the keyboard interface.
Information and user interface in the design must be readable and understandable to reach the broadest audience possible. That could mean identifying the primary language for an entire webpage, text passages, or phrases on a page. It also requires providing the clearest and simplest language possible and offering definitions of unusual words, or phrases.
Robust content is compatible with current and future user tools, such as web browsers, mobile browsers, or assistive technologies. This can be accomplished through ensuring markup on pages is valid and providing a name, role, and value for non-standard user interface components.
Accessibility is only a part of the process, however. Pellegrin said that understanding the balance between accessibility and accommodation is important for working with users who have disabilities. While virtual services must be independently accessible, accommodations must be requested and require a disclosure and advance notice. Digital tools, such as those found in Granicus’ Government Experience Cloud, provide easy applications designed with increasing accessibility in mind. But sometimes, certain types of content can’t fit into user accessibility needs.
In those cases for Denver, Pellegrin said that the website provides an area to contact her team if something is not properly accessible or further accommodations are needed for a user to access information.
“We try not to make that happen,” she said. “But inevitably there are situations where there are particular tools that can’t be accessed. That can get into hairy situations, but we make sure that it is clear that the information is available by contacting us.”
Getting Started with a Culture of Digital Accessibilty
Understanding and bringing digital services up to ADA compliance can seem like a daunting task for any organization. For Denver, Pellegrin said that getting organized into critical focus areas made handling the transition easier.
“It’s impossible to go big and all in, especially for a government as large as ours,” said Pellegrin. “We needed to figure out and take account of our own house, so to speak.”
Tracking the websites, digital services, and product owners was a major first step for Denver. Making sure to know who is responsible for which websites and building those relationships not only helped deal with the initial efforts, but established a connection for future development.
Starting with her own team, Pellegrin created training content that could be distributed to departments to better understand how and why to increase accessibility. Pellegrin said that her department now has over 10 training content pieces on everything from video and design accessibility to website and document distribution topic. New content authors hired by the city are required to take these trainings during on-boarding, and all staff attends annual training to help establish a culture of accessibility design.
Important but time-consuming, testing for accessibility is a vital part of the accessibility process for Denver. While Pellegrin trains content authors on quality assurance testing for PDFs, the city also takes part in scheduled manual testing and follow-ups.
Integrating new technology can impact established accessibility standards, often in a negative way. To avoid these conflicts, Pellegrin said that her team is actively involved as a partner with intake analysts. As a result, they are able to create review surveys for all incoming product requests and keep accessibility front and center with leadership.
Balancing People and Technologies
One of the lessons that Pellegrin said she learned through the process of creating a change in digital accessibility for Denver is that technology is only part of the puzzle. Making sure that people understand the need for the process and how they can engage in its development, can help impact success.
Documenting processes, learnings, and developments was a key part of that growth, said Pellegin, suggesting that any ADA compliance or accessibility changes in government should make sure to take the approach to create new guidelines and standards as needed.
“Need everyone to address accessibility? Create policies,” she said. “Need consistency that’s easy to follow? Create standards. Have best practices to help with accessibility? Create guidelines. We’re learning new things and everyone can share information and inform that growth.”
Nonetheless, adapting years of information from numerous departments can make meeting ADA digital accessibility standards seem overwhelming. For those facing the challenge, Pellegrin offers a simple advice to get started: “Start small, use what you can, and grow from there.”
Learn more about Denver’s digital accessibility journey and get more insights from Karen Pellegrin by watching the webinar.