A Look behind the Scenes – Part I: Making Disability.gov Accessible

An image of a computer keyboard with a red accessibility button.

By Marc Seguin, System Analyst, Disability.gov 

This is the first post in a multi-part series written by the Disability.gov team to help others learn about the importance of website accessibility and the best practices that are used on Disability.gov. For more information on the Section 508 standards and tools, please visit http://section508.gov/.

The people who make up the Disability.gov team are intensely focused on the mission of providing people with disabilities, their families and others the most comprehensive information available on disability programs and services in communities nationwide. Therefore, meeting and exceeding the requirements of Section 508 (of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are very important to us. We have worked hard to make Disability.gov a known leader in website accessibility and usability, because we understand how much it improves the overall user experience.

Managing and maintaining more than 14,000 resources from federal, state and local government agencies, academic institutions and nonprofit organizations keeps the handful of people that comprise our team extremely busy. We want to make sure the information the site offers is up-to-date, useful and accurate. Our small team usually doesn’t have the bandwidth to engage as often as we’d like in wide ranging discussions about website accessibility and Section 508 compliance – largely because of the effort we dedicate to maintaining the site itself, including implementing site redesigns and new features like the widget that was launched last year.

We also focus on our social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Disability.Blog, as well as writing the bi-monthly Disability Connection newsletter. These efforts help us connect people with disabilities to the information they need to fully participate in the workforce and their communities. Above all, that is our mission.

Disability.gov (previously known as DisabilityInfo.gov) has been around for nearly 10 years, so many of the accessibility issues that may affect other websites have fortunately been resolved long ago. We incorporate accessibility testing as part of our development process and ongoing website maintenance. We utilize different assistive technologies, including screen readers (JAWS, Window Eyes, NVDA, Voice Over), screen magnifiers (ZoomText), speech recognition software (Dragon Naturally Speaking) and the most commonly used browser types and versions.

The primary ways we test for Section 508 compliance and accessibility are:

  • Manual testing by educated and experienced users, including those with disabilities and others who have worked with people who have a wide range of disabilities and have utilized different types of assistive technologies. (I believe that most in the accessibility testing world would agree that somewhere around 20-30 percent of best practices can be checked using automated methods alone.) Employing manual verification through user testing allows us to catch what can be missed by the rigid code standards that automated tools rely on, find false positive results and test dynamic features.
  • Seeking to meet Section 508 standards and exceed them by following the WCAG 2.0 AA guidelinesand other checkpoints as defined by the W3C. Because accessibility has been our focus for a long time, testing is typically done during a major iteration where a significant structure of the site may have been changed or a new feature has been added.  
  • Attempting to upgrade or update the site every one to two months, meaning that accessibility testing happens at least that often. Regular, intensive accessibility testing is done on the site every six months or annually, as resources and scheduling permit. 
  • Measuring user feedback. Like many other sites, we use a survey powered by ForeSee to measure our visitors’ experience with Disability.gov and evaluate comments received through email, Twitter, Facebook and other methods. We strive to respond as quickly as possible, oftentimes implementing solutions that not only meet accessibility requirements, but also improve the site’s usability.

To be continued….

Are you a Section 508 coordinator, federal web content manager or a member of the disability community who has questions about web accessibility?

Stay tuned next Tuesday for A Look behind the Scenes – Part II: The Website Accessibility Information Gap

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