With the inauguration on January 20, the WhiteHouse.gov team released a new website. A noticeable and well received feature of the new site is that it once again has an accessibility statement which is linked in the footer of every page — a best practice that demonstrates this administration’s commitment to serving all Americans of all abilities.
The short-but-aspirational statement makes it clear that this is just the beginning, and that the White House team will continue working to build a site that is accessible and usable by folks who are challenged by impairments, using assistive devices, or facing situational barriers that make it harder to navigate online.
The statement serves as an initial step toward making the website, and all services, accessible to the greatest number of people possible.
The statement serves as an initial step toward making the website, and all services, accessible to the greatest number of people possible. It’s clear that this administration isn’t just aiming for compliance with the current requirements of the recently-refreshed Section 508 guidelines, but going the full extent to align with WCAG 2.1 AA — the latest W3C recommendation and the standard beginning to be adopted by governments worldwide.
An even better statement: suggestions for improvement
While the newly released accessibility statement is a laudable first step, it’s understood to be a work-in-progress. Everyone working on digital products and projects for public services should be continually looking for opportunities to make them more accessible, and the White House statement specifically invites comments on ways to improve. Our recommendations include:
Make it easy to get in touch
To make it easier for people to flag problems with the site or give feedback, more ways to get in touch could be offered. There are currently several phone numbers listed (including some for hearing impaired folks — well done!), but a web form, email address, or even Twitter account could be added to allow users to digitally submit ways to improve the site. After all, some people are non-verbal, and others might feel a bit shy about picking up the phone and calling the White House!
Additionally, digital feedback options can capture browser and operating system information and allow people to upload screenshots, which makes debugging easier. Email and Twitter can be used to gather information into a common issue queue to manage feedback and make sure that issues are identified and fixed in a timely manner.
Address the whole White House experience
The accessibility statement could be expanded to provide users with information about the accessibility features of the White House itself, not just the website. For example, when we are able to do White House tours again, where will visitors go to find out if there is an accessible washroom? There may also be mobile apps that fall under the White House management that need to be covered in accessibility considerations. Thinking about all aspects of services (digital and physical) can help agencies provide the most holistic accessible experience to everyone.
Thinking about all aspects of services (digital and physical) can help agencies provide the most holistic accessible experience to everyone.
Account for accessibility limitations
Recognizing that accessibility is a journey that never ends, it’s important to acknowledge where there are limitations that impaired people may encounter breakdowns in accessibility. For example, if users navigate to archived pages of the website, they will likely find them less accessible than the current pages that are being brought up to an improved standard.
Legacy files and videos may also be found lacking in accessibility. If there is published content that isn’t accessible but is still being served up to people, the statement can identify it, and explain if there is a process for requesting that the material be provided in an accessible format.
Recognizing that accessibility is a journey that never ends, it’s important to acknowledge where there are limitations that impaired people may encounter breakdowns in accessibility.
And of course there is the challenge of the ever-beloved-by-government PDF files. Will the WhiteHouse.gov team be continuing to use PDF files, or following the model that the UK has recommended? If PDFs will be used, is there a plan for making them accessible, or providing the information in an additional format that is accessible? Will large print versions be made available, or only on request? These are all questions that can be addressed in a robust accessibility statement.
Show how the sausage is made
Accessibility and transparency are closely linked. There is an opportunity here to provide visibility into how WhiteHouse.gov is built, which can promote better understanding and usability for everyone. The White House could explain that the site is built with WordPress and that they are following the accessibility best practices defined in the WordPress community. This includes using a plug-in that allows users to switch between high/low contrast, as well as change the font size. Many people still don’t know about dark mode, or how they can configure it by default in their browser.
If the site is built on the United States Web Design System (USWDS), it would be useful to highlight this. This is a U.S. Government framework that has been extensively tested for accessibility best practices. It may be worth noting that the White House is committed to keeping up with the USWDS and will be applying updates to this framework to keep up-to-date with security/accessibility best practices. If there are deviations from the standard implementation, this could be explained.
It would be also important to know what is the testing process used internally in the WhiteHouse.gov team. Are automated tools used? Are new features tested with people who have lived experience with disability? Does the team test for keyboard-only users? Has anyone checked what happens to text if someone zooms in their browser to enlarge 300%? Explaining the extent of testing that has been done will allow people to predict what level of accessibility they may find for their own particular needs when using WhiteHouse.gov.
Accessibility statement best practices
For the White House team, and for all of us working to create digital services that are usable by the greatest number of people, there are guidelines to help. If any team is looking to start with a robust accessibility statement, they may start with the advice of accessibility expert Denis Boudreau, who summarized the four essential elements of an accessibility statement. It should have:
- Statement of intention to best serve people with disabilities
- Reference to the standards followed (usually WCAG 2.0 AA)
- Examples of accessible implementations on their site
- How to reach out with comments or requests for help
Accessibility expert Karl Groves outlined a list that adds: “What are you doing to support and improve accessibility?” as an important element. Lainey Feingold, a well respected legal accessibility expert, has suggested that an ideal accessibility statement would also include references to an organization’s accessibility policies and include information about other accessibility services. Web accessibility firm Microassist developed a useful checklist for getting started.
The W3C has an accessibility statement generator which adds in section for technical information that might help a user better navigate the site. Disability:IN and the UK’s Government Digital Service have also produced some excellent guides. The accessibility statement page, perhaps more than any other page, should be kept current so people can access accurate information — and of course it should be made as accessible as possible!
A website for all people
It is encouraging to see what the new administration has done to emphasize the importance of accessibility, even in the first weeks after the inauguration. There is a real commitment from the Biden team to meet the needs of all people, clearly including the 20% that have disabilities. The web team behind the White House site — like all of us who are working in support of government digital services — have a significant challenge ahead, but an equally significant obligation to do the hard work and always be improving. The American people deserve no less.