Wrangling Public Sector Sites into Compliance

“It was like the Wild West,” Kevin Erickson says about accessibility compliance at the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) in 2008. “Back then, it was rare for public sites to consider User Experience/User Interface (UX/UI) and accessibility.”

As a contractor assigned to the task of evaluating and correcting Section 508 accessibility issues for VDOE, Erickson wanted to raise the flag about accessibility and didn’t want to cut any corners. By the time the project was completed in 2010, the site was 100 percent accessible. However, when Erickson returned to the department in 2016, he found he needed to start all over again.

We’re sharing his experience here in honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day on May 17th.

In our efforts to pinpoint the issues government agencies face in regards to accessibility, we asked Erickson about his process. He detailed the challenges and rewards of his work at VDOE, as well as some recommendations for how to make accessibility an ongoing, but not overly exhausting, priority.

Ongoing priority

After reaching accessibility compliance in 2010 as a contractor for VDOE, Erickson left to join a Fortune 500 finance company. He returned to the department six years later as a full time employee. Now with private sector experience, he was also equipped as a certified Scrum Master with a strong belief in Scaled Agile Frameworks (SAFe).

On his return, Erickson found that the accessibility landscape had shifted. Compliance was seen as a benefit for all users, including non-disabled individuals (e.g. using an accessibility tool such as a screen reader on an iPhone to voice over GPS when riding a motorcycle).

However, Erickson discovered that despite the shift, and the fact that most of the code and changes he created in 2010 were being maintained, the VDOE site was no longer compliant. He thus began the process of making the site fully accessible again. By looking at practices at agencies across the US and in different countries, he found the best approach was to take things one step at a time.

Step-by-step progress

Erickson believes that site accessibility is similar to a civil or human rights issue. With a significant amount of the population affected by disabilities that can inhibit the online experience (50 million Americans), content needs to be concise and revamped to make it easier to read.

First, to fuel inclusion for underserved minorities, Erickson felt it was important to educate stakeholders on the importance of color contrast and font size for populations with visual impairments.

Although there was initial resistance from some in the department over the disruption these changes might create, Erickson was able to showcase the benefits. He was very grateful for the open-minded and customer-service oriented leadership who wanted to deliver the best site experience possible. They were also willing to provide extra resources and accessibility tools as needed.

Erickson and his team laid out a plan and received buy-in from the top to change the code for screen readers used by visually impaired people. By working behind the scenes and not changing the look of the site, he was able to produce incremental and minimally disruptive improvements. This achieved remedies for code violations and increased support for the project.

Next, the team used an automated accessibility scanning tool called AMP (Accessibility Management Platform) by Level Access. This helped to monitor accessibility issues, and determine the most egregious violations. By putting away the mouse and using a screen reader to access the site, it was clear when there were missing headings and language specifications.

These results were reviewed by the team to make sure everyone understood the priorities based on severity. Timeframes were established, and resources were added as needed for each phase of development.

When, on January 18, 2018, the new Federal accessibility mandates were released, Erickson and his colleague took the opportunity to look at low hanging violations on the VDOE site. They set up a public-facing, statewide custom resource training area. This provided links to a step-by-step guide for creating accessible agency documents, and onsite training demonstrations. He and his colleague continued with Agile development to correct previous violations.

Results

Over the course of the project, Erickson was able to accomplish more than 98 percent of the updates. This took the accessibility of the VDOE site from 6 to 100 percent Section 508 compliant. Virginia DOE is now working toward WCAG 2.0AA compliance.

After the big push at VDOE for accessibility enhancements over the last year and a half, the VDOE Communications team has an ongoing commitment to keep the website modern and accessible to all. As well, to ensure those with mobile devices can view the content, the website is being transferred over to responsive web design (RWD).

Furthermore, Erickson and his colleague have taken on the task of being an accessibility role model for the state of Virginia, with an entire section on the site dedicated to accessibility guidelines.

Recommendations

Erickson found the following steps to be indispensable to the accessibility upgrade process:

1. Evaluate

  • Take an honest look at the website with fresh eyes to see what is needed
  • Do user testing, perhaps with the engagement of third party vendor, to find out what’s working and what’s not
  • Look at other models and sites to see what can be emulated
  • Look at the department and the current team’s skill sets, determine where help is needed, and the ‘best’ approach for the department
  • Figure out what needs to be archived, what needs to be changed
  • Define the scope of the changes, and develop a road map

2. Get Buy-in

  • Get buy in from leadership and all those involved in the changes
  • Use an Agile approach to development, with team norms to curb behavior and define rules and roles
  • Break components into manageable phases
  • Don’t let the weight of the projects fall on one person to plan and execute
  • Spread the load and educate people within the department to make accessibility a shared responsibility
  • Try and remove personal bias in favor of an objective view of the project
  • Expect some resistance due to internal politics and inconvenience for members during this transition
  • Stay the course and show both the benefits and consequences to actions and non-actions
  • Choose which battles to fight to keep the project on track toward the ultimate goal of a more accessible site with better user experience

3. Show Results

  • Use an Agile approach to development to allow stakeholders to see immediate progress and change
  • Make incremental improvements and amendments, so users get immediate benefit and functionality without having to wait for the next release
  • Test results to assure the changes are working for users

Next steps

Erickson says it’s important to remember that accessibility is an ongoing exercise. “You are done with each project phase when the criteria has been checked off and the piece is ready to be released,” he says. “But you may have ongoing sprints and improvements, including creating user personas to define who is using the site and how, until you are satisfied.”

Erickson also believes there should be more training within the public sector beyond a yearly Learning Management System (LMS) update, but he recognizes that resources are scarce. He found that his Scrum Master certification and other skills learned during his time in the private sector were helpful in the effort to minimize resources.

“In public service, you need to find multiple ways to keep motivated and keep morale up,” Erickson advises. “This is important work, but to do your best you need to be a self starter. You need to be educated and read up on material to defend your stance and present recommendations with the most chance of buy-in and success. To this end, engage outside help if needed, and keep things simple.”

Finally

“There is a demand for achieving high quality coding and product for the public,” Erickson argues. “People using public sector sites need intuitive design regardless of whether they have a disability or not.”

As Erickson found at VDOE, success lies in taking an incremental approach to the shifting landscape of accessibility. It may take time to understand the issues involved, and the technology changes needed. Additionally, a clear plan needs to be in place to effectively influence decision makers.

“Rather than doing things quickly, the focus is on getting things done right,” Erickson says. “Ultimately, it’s about delivering better customer service.”

Learn more

Author bio

Ravi Jackson has a background in law, finance, and policy, with 10 years of experience in the Maine state government. A witty Brit with a gift for discourse, he welcomes further discussion on this topic. He can be reached at ravi.jackson@govwebworks.com and @RaviJacksonGWW on Twitter.

Public Sector Business Consultant