A lot of people have been asking us to present at conferences recently. And, because we’re a new company, we’re happy to have any opportunity to get our name out there.
ADA Symposium (May 13)
A Little Background
One advantage to spending twelve years in the Disability Rights Section at the Department of Justice is you get to really know the key people in the traditional ADA community. And, for the last five years or so, I've used those connections to build awareness in that community of the importance of web and digital accessibility.
This year, the organizers at the National ADA Symposium actively discouraged people from submitting applications because there were only a handful a slots not pre-assigned to government speakers-- nonetheless, we were able to squeeze in a presentation by Jeff Singleton and Greg Rogers (formerly of Outlook Business Solutions) on Demystifying Digital Accessibility: Fundamentals and a Basic Roadmap, which they presented on Friday, May 13 at 5:00 pm.
What Did We Talk About?
It says something about the confusion around digital accessibility when 200 participants show up for a presentation at 5:00pm on the last day of a conference. The general sentiment among the participants was that, while they knew that they should do "something" to improve web and digital accessibility, they had no idea what that "something" was.
Greg and Jeff explained that, just as the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (a set of guidelines that this audience knew really well) describe how a wheelchair ramp should be designed, the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) describe how an accessible website should be designed. Jeff and Greg explained how basic ADA concepts like "effective communication" (which requires that organizations provide sign language interpreters at presentations for deaf individuals) means that digital content on websites (like images and videos) need alternative text and captioning to understand.
Jeff and Greg then dug a little deeper and gave examples of different assistive technologies. They demonstrated what a screen reader user may experience when accessing a form that is inaccessible versus one that is accessible. This comparison gave the attendees a sense for what real world screen reader users must do to access web content and the challenges they can face when web pages are not coded to the WCAG standards. Then they tried to demystify WCAG's success criteria by giving examples of how each success criteria can make an enormous difference in terms of the real world disabled user experience.
Next, they demonstrated how keyboard accessibility makes a huge impact for both blind users and mobility impaired users. And they explained how anyone can successfully perform basic keyboard testing-- and then encouraged audience members to try this testing on their own websites.
Greg and Jeff also talked about practical steps to promote accessible content. They explained the need for a good Accessibility Statement and how to create one. Next, they talked about the pros and cons of manual testing, automated testing, and accessibility overlays. And finally, they gave some examples of freely-available tools to check accessibility of web pages.
Code for America (May 18)
A Little Background
Awhile back, Mike Gifford from CivicActions reached out to me to talk about procurement—and specifically ACRs. His organization had recently won a contract from the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to develop a machine-readable version of the Accessible Conformance Report (ACR). Why contact me about procurement and ACRs? Well, I have a long history with GSA (which coordinates the Federal government’s procurement policies and procedures) and ACRs, which started back in 1998 when I worked with GSA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to improve the Federal government's procurement process and promote the use of accessible technology. Then, after I left the Federal government, I was asked by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) in 2009 to create a machine-readable format of the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). In this context, VPATs and ACRs are two names for the same thing, so there was an obvious overlap between Mike’s project and mine.
My project took a lot of work but never went anywhere. So when Mike contacted me, we both wanted to make sure that his efforts weren’t wasted. There were a few differences between our approaches. For instance, twelve years ago, Extensible Markup Language (XML) was all the rage and so my work used XML and XSLT style sheets to make it both machine-readable and human-friendly. But XML is really verbose so Mike’s project uses YAML (“Yet Another Markup Language”). Mike also published the OpenACR Specification on Github, which I had never heard of 12 years ago. We’ve had a few long and thoughtful discussions about the positives and negatives of a machine-readable VPAT/ACR. Plus, we’ve talked a lot about government procurement and how it could be better used to drive accessibility.
What Will We Be Talking About?
Fast forward a few months and Mike asked me if I would be interested in participating in a panel presentation at Code for America on Procuring Accessibility Technology: Why it’s So Hard and How We Fix It (Virtual Presentation, May 18 5-6pm EST). Mike and I will be joined by Justen Proctor (Contracting Officer, GSA) and our session will be moderated by Pia Zaragoza, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at GSA.
Our presentation will focus on the successes and failures of driving accessibility through procurement. A rough agenda is:
- What is the role of civic technology in promoting digital accessibility?
- How can/does the procurement process drive accessibility?
- What is the current state of this effort?
- What are some of the best practices to promote this public-private partnership?
- If we each had a magic wand, what would we do or what would happen?
- Optional question: what's your superpower?
So What's My Perspective?
My Overall Feeling About Accessibility and Government Procurement
In a nutshell, I believe that driving accessibility through the procurement process is a "people problem" and not a "technical problem." While machine-readable VPATs and OCRs are great idea (because they make it easier for procurement officers to find accessible products), the bigger problem is getting government buyers to care about promoting accessibility in the first place.
The ”people problem” at the heart of accessibility and procurement has two parts. First, government buyers need an easy way to assess accessibility without becoming accessibility experts themselves. For organizations that already have an accessibility mandate (e.g. Federal agencies that are required to meet Section 508 or state entities that have adopted Section 508-like policies), this can mean (1) including a clause that requires vendors to provide an ACR for each IT product in a procurement and (2) advising vendors that they may be required to demonstrate basic user tasks set forth in the RFP using NVDA, JAWS or other popular screen readers. This can be done with a simple clause in the RFP such as the following:
Prior to award of any contract, the vendor may be required to demonstrate the successful use of the open source NVDA screen reader in performing the following tasks:
[provide short list of tasks for product here]
If your organization is unfamiliar with NVDA and the accessibility requirements that form the basis of the ACR, please visit our accessibility vendor page for organizations that successfully helped vendors meet similar requirements for other successful bidders in the past.
This two-part approach makes sense because it removes the burden of understanding and meeting accessibility from the government buyer and puts it on the vendor. Government buyers don’t have to become experts in accessibility just to feel confident that they performed their due diligence in meeting accessibility requirement. Also, because it is backed up by a demonstration of the product’s accessibility, this approach also reassures government buyers that the ACR or VPAT that they are reviewing accurately reflects the efforts of the vendor’s IT and accessibility teams and not their sales and marketing teams. I would love to say that I came up with this two-part approach by myself, but this approach is nothing new. Cheryl Pruitt has been using it for years at California State University and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been using a roughly analogous approach for decades in its IT procurements.
Just because it's easier for procurement officers to promote accessibility doesn't mean that they will actually do it. Therefore, the second part to solving this people problem is encouraging procurement officers to adopt accessibility best practices. This means celebrating successes where agencies have used these strategies to encourage vendors to create more accessible products. I believe that it’s the government’s job to lead here. For instance, the Department of Justice could restart its Section 508 surveys, highlight best practices in its reports to the President and Congress, and encourage agencies to adopt best practices. I also think GSA could do a better job in promoting accessibility through procurement. Too often, I think GSA focuses too much on technical solutions (e.g. does anyone remember the GPAT?) while ignoring the human side of the equation.
What about entities that don’t follow Section 508? There are model policies like the World Economic Forum's Model ICT Accessibility Policy that give governments the toolkit that they need to create a process like Section 508. Plus, they include model RFP language that governments can use to jump-start their accessibility programs.
What's My Take on the Specific Questions During the Panel?
So getting back to the specific topics I listed above that we’ll be talking about during our panel presentation, what do I think about each of these questions? Let’s go through them one by one.
What is the role of civic technology in promoting digital accessibility?
I think Section 508 has been a great public-private partnership. Section 508 made Federal procurement a key factor for government purchases-- and industry responded by making its products more accessible. But this only works if government buyers show that they are "serious" about accessibility in their procurements. The strategies I outlined above make this possible, without requiring purchasing officers to become experts in accessibility.
How can/does the procurement process drive accessibility?
I described that above.
What is the current state of this effort?
Not great but still a lot better than it could be. Compared to state and local government, the Federal government is far ahead in accessibility. And there simply isn't any comparison to the private sector (which I think is an accessibility disaster).
What are some of the best practices to promote this public-private partnership?
OpenACR is a good idea in theory but I'm not sure yet whether it will gain widespread acceptance. Over the years, GSA has had a number of technical efforts that fizzled out (e.g. GPAT?). Organizations that are strongly focused on accessibility have been able to do just fine using the tools they already have. The problem is getting procurement officers to care to take it seriously.
If we each had a magic wand, what would we do or what would happen?
My ideas for improving accessibility through procurement are outlined above. If every agency adopted these simple steps, we wouldn't have this problem. I also wish that the Department of Justice had continued its surveys (maybe they should restart their surveys?). As my earlier post suggested, DOJ is dropping the ball on web accessibility. And because they stopped conducting their biennial surveys, they're dropping the ball on Section 508 as well.
Optional Question: What's Your Super Power?
I'm a lawyer. That means I'm that unpleasant guy who gets you to do things that you don't want to do.
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