Jan 05 2022
Digital Workspace

The Pandemic Has Highlighted the Need for Accessible Technology in Government

The rise of remote work and virtual meetings revealed IT solutions’ shortcomings for workers with disabilities.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed a great deal about how state and local governments operate, with many agencies expanding digital services. However, with governments turning increasingly to remote work, virtual meetings and online service delivery, the pandemic has also shown the shortcomings of such solutions and technologies for those with disabilities.

Those issues were recently highlighted in a publication from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. In an interview with NASCIO Policy and Research Director Meredith Ward, Jay Wyant, the chief information accessibility officer for Minnesota, discusses how the pandemic exposed gaps in providing accessible tools for those with disabilities.

Wyant notes in the interview that accessible virtual meetings have been a “net positive for many employees with disabilities” since government employees “with limited mobility found it easier to attend meetings.” He also adds that online meeting applications have improved captions support, and “some deaf and hard of hearing employees found it easier to track conversations in meetings.”

A recent survey from Adobe found that 77 percent of respondents “living with a disability say their workplace has done a better job supporting them since the onset of the pandemic,” according to an Adobe blog post.

Still, more work needs to be done to ensure that technologies are accessible for all government workers.

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States Face Challenges on IT Accessibility

As the pandemic unfolded, workarounds that depended on quick assistance from friendly coworkers were suddenly unavailable. Wyant notes that as employees with disabilities began teleworking at home offices, it became more difficult for companies to provide IT support to colleagues, and it also took months for online meeting platforms to enhance their accessibility features. Even now, Wyant says, employees still face challenges.

“The best solution continues to be for IT providers to learn from these efforts and include accessibility right at the beginning when they design their systems,” he adds.

It’s also been difficult to keep up with a constantly changing information environment, according to Wyant. “Many states rely on data visualization tools to explain what is happening, but if that information isn’t accessible, many vulnerable citizens, including people with disabilities, can’t easily understand the content,” he says.

The pandemic has also put a spotlight on the fact that state government are dependent on vendor-provided technology solutions, Wyant says, and that “vendors need to understand and support the obligations governments have regarding accessibility and usability (not to exclude security, data privacy, etc.).”

RELATED: How to make hybrid work successful for the long term.

Agencies needed to quickly procure and deploy technologies. “Accessibility remained a requirement, but there was little to no time to test or confirm,” Wyant says. “Even vendors with good track records struggled to ensure accessibility because they were either using new, unproven tools or dusting off old tools that had not yet been fully tested. Vendors with less experience with accessibility took months to learn and fix their issues — too late for many people with disabilities.”

Agencies can and should require vendors to “provide credible information about their product’s accessibility” and also “verify the vendor’s statements and general support for accessibility.”

Smart vendors know that accessible technology is good business, Wyant says. “As state government leaders, we need to encourage them to think about accessibility all the time — not just when they sell to government. Then we all benefit.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: Hybrid work is here to stay in state and local government.

How States Can Improve Their Technology Accessibility

How can states improve their technology accessibility for workers with disabilities? Wyant says states should adopt statewide policies “with teeth” that make accessibility mandatory for all government agencies.

“We’ve had people say, ‘accessibility is an IT problem,’ therefore it’s up to IT professionals to deal with it,” Wyant says. “On the contrary, everyone needs to be involved and held accountable — agencies who want the software/service need to require it be accessible, staff who create digital content need to make it accessible, and IT professionals need the skills and knowledge to support all this.”

There should also be a stakeholder or a group to ensure accessibility is built into procurement and technology decisions. “Accessibility is everyone’s job, but it’s important to designate someone (ideally a collective of someones) to help you increase awareness and understanding, plan and organize training, and help create processes and procedures for procurement, application design, development, testing and content creation,” Wyant says. “Think of your accessibility program like you do your security program — both are risk management programs that improve your state’s ability to deliver critical services.” State agencies should focus on recruiting and hiring staff accordingly.

Accessibility should also be a statewide initiative and priority, according to Wyant. “Encourage everyone at your state who is passionate about accessibility to collaborate with others and encourage them to support each other — don’t limit them to only work on projects in their department,” he says. “Minnesota IT Services’ Office of Accessibility participates in monthly inter-state collaboration meetings, and we would welcome your state’s digital accessibility lead to join us.”

Chansom Pantip/Getty Images

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