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Many US government sites not accessible for disabled users, claims new research

Various high-profile US government websites, including major service portals, are not accessible for users with disabilities, according to a new study.

The ‘Benchmarking U.S. Government Websites’ report found that 42% of US federal sites tested failed to meet the necessary accessibility criteria.

The report aims to give a broad picture of US government website usability across a range of categories. A total of 297 federal sites were reviewed for accessibility, speed, mobile friendliness and security.

One of the most common accessibility problems found was a failure to add labels to elements on a page. These text labels and descriptions help screen-reader users to navigate web pages, and were found to be lacking on images, buttons and input forms.

Other accessibility issues included a lack of contrast between text and background colour (making it difficult for some sighted users to pick out content), failure to put content in a sequential order (ordering content properly is important for screen-reader and keyboard-only users), and a failure to make text “sufficiently readable and understandable” (for example, not specifying the language used, which can impact on a screen-reader’s pronunciation).

The report was produced by ITIF (the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a non-profit think tank that aims to provide information for technology policy-makers) and authored by Alan McQuinn and Daniel Castro.

The federal sites were tested using AChecker, an evaluation tool that identifies accessibility problems on webpages using different sets of guidelines selected by the user. WCAG 2.0 (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0) was used by ITIF to evaluate the government sites.

Although these types of automated tools can identify a number of barriers, relying on them is often discouraged by accessibility practitioners due to their limitations, such as the lack of direct user-testing by humans.

AChecker claims to bypass part of this problem, by flagging up ‘likely’ and ‘potential’ problems, which need human assessment to be resolved. However, the ITIF report only tested the US government sites for ‘known’ problems, which are automatically detected by AChecker. The report claims that this was “to avoid unfairly penalizing sites”.

Rated purely on these accessibility terms, the top three US government sites in the report were: weather.gov, usembassy.gov and whitehouse.gov. The three sites with the lowest accessibility scores were: mycreditunion.gov, presidio.gov (a national park site) and blm.gov (the Bureau of Land Management).

A number of high-profile federal sites also scored poorly for accessibility in the report. These included: trade.gov (the International Trade Administration), irs.gov (the Internal Revenue Service) and mymedicare.gov (a user portal for Medicare, a federal health insurance program for people over 65 and some younger people with disabilities).

When ranked by the overall score given across the four tested categories (accessibility, speed, mobile friendliness and security), the top five federal sites in the report were: healthdata.gov, healthfinder.gov, consumerfinance.gov, whitehouse.gov and usembassy.gov.

Read more about the research at the ITIF website:
http://eab.li/5a .

Link to the full ‘Benchmarking U.S. Government Websites’ report below, available only in PDF:
http://eab.li/5b .

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