Senate panel faults VA over website accessibility

A report from a Senate panel focused on issues that affect older Americans found the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has not made its websites accessible for its users. 

The Senate Special Committee on Aging released its report on Wednesday after an 11-month investigation. It found the federal government has failed to ensure its technology is accessible for people with disabilities, older adults and veterans. 

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The report says the government has not met the requirements for accessibility set forth by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires the federal government to develop accessibility guidelines for electronic equipment that it procures. 

The committee found issues across the federal government but chiefly with the VA’s websites. The report says federal departments and agencies can take years to address Section 508 violations, allowing issues to linger, and insufficient oversight and enforcement of the law has led to a lack of compliance.

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VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement that the department is working urgently to ensure the “vast majority” of websites that veterans visit are accessible, prioritizing sites based on frequency of visits.

He said almost 90 percent of the VA’s 1,000 most frequently visited websites have received “outstanding” accessibility scores of 95 percent or higher.

“We will not rest until every VA website is 508 compliant and serves all Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors,” Hayes said. “VA welcomes this oversight from Congress and continues to work hard at improving our online presence with the help of our Hill partners, [Veterans Service Organization] partners, and most importantly, Veterans.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the chair of the committee, also made 12 recommendations for the federal government to address the issues. The recommendations call for increasing transparency and accountability, improving the accessibility of federal technology for workers and taxpayers and Congress taking action. 

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They say that inspectors general in each department should increase oversight of Section 508 compliance, which they rarely do, the Justice Department should resume reporting on its compliance with the regulations and the General Services Administration should publish its data on compliance. 

They also say that departments and agencies should incorporate people with disabilities and older adults into technology planning and evaluation, expand the use of human testers to evaluate accessibility and consider appointing accessibility officers who are responsible for compliance. 

The recommendations say Congress should hold federal departments and agencies accountable through oversight and legislation and should consider amending Section 508. The amendments should include measures like new language for meeting the needs of people with disabilities and older adults and add new enforcement authority, according to the list of recommendations.

Updated at 11:49 a.m.

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