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Many government websites frustrate those with disabilities

Astrophysicist Wanda Diaz-Merced doesn’t need a new study to know that many U.S. government websites are not easily accessible to persons with disabilities. Diaz-Merced, who is blind, is trying to convince NASA to make its data archive sites navigable by screen-reading programs so that she can continue studying space weather as a postdoc for the International Astronomical Union in Cape Town, South Africa.

Last month the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington, D.C., think tank, found that 42% of the 300 most popular government websites posed significant accessibility problems. The foundation assigned each website a score based on new rules that don’t take effect until January 2018 as its yardstick, so the webmasters have several months to shape up. But, “There’s a lot of room for improvement,” says ITIF’s Alan McQuinn, co-author of the report.

For Diaz-Merced, one frustration is having windows pop up every time she clicks on a link. That interruption causes her to lose track of her place on the page. Other common problems identified in the ITIF report include lack of descriptions for images and text fields, and information not presented in an order easily followed by screen-readers.

“I don’t think it’s a lack of awareness or a lack of effort or lack of desire” when a government website has accessibility issues, says Bill Trefzger, deputy director of digital communications at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. Website developers and managers understand the importance of accessibility, he says, but logistical considerations can hinder good intentions.

Legacy sites usually need to be upgraded. Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Upton, New York, which scored poorly on ITIF’s test, supports webpages that go back many years, explained Pete Genzer, deputy director of BNL’s stakeholder and community relations office, in an email to ScienceInsider. “There are fewer every day, but it’s an ongoing process,” he wrote.

Kevin Broun oversees webpages at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health, which scored well in ITIF’s review. NCI uses a web crawler that flags problems as they arise and a template that has best practices built in, such as text fields to include captions for images.

Trefzger admits he doesn’t have a “stick” to penalize NCI if it fails to meet the new standards. But the department posts the monthly accessibility ratings of its divisions’ websites, and he thinks that public airing offers “its own set of incentives.”

To encourage agencies to update their sites, ITIF recommends that agencies focus on fixing issues in a particular area for a short period of time. In 2015, for example, the Obama administration launched a 30-day sprint to address cybersecurity issues. Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which establishes guidelines for the web, believes that sprints can help. Any improvement means “less drag on someone who’s just trying to get their job done,” she says. “All of it helps.” Even better, she adds, would be a long-term plan to manage accessibility.

Diaz-Merced thinks user testing and focus groups with astronomers could help NASA improve its websites. The site managers offer to find the data sets for her, but that’s not the point, she says. “I want to have the freedom of selecting what I want from the database.”