February 23, 2024

Technology Websites

I Need Technology Websites Right

Blind and disabled veterans can’t access VA websites, report says


Ron Biglin is a 73-year-old blind veteran living in Clarks Summit, Pa., who regularly goes kayaking and fishing, sorts his mail and uses public transportation to get around.

But he can’t log on to the Department of Veterans Affairs website portal for his health benefits because the portal’s design isn’t compatible with his screen reader, which converts text to speech.

Now, a new report from the Senate Special Committee on Aging is taking VA to task for neglecting accessibility issues on its websites. Despite the fact that 27 percent of all veterans have a service-connected disability — and more than 1 million veterans are blind or have low vision — only 8 percent of VA’s public-facing websites and 6 percent of its internal sites are fully compliant with federal accessibility law, according to the report released Wednesday.

The issue with VA websites is a sign of a larger problem with accessibility at the federal level that has persisted for years, according to Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who serves as the committee’s chairman.

“When a veteran who has given so much to the country can’t access services because of a problem like that, that shouldn’t just be a cause for concern but should be a call for action,” Casey said.

The recently issued report recommends that agencies appoint accessibility officers to ensure compliance with accessibility rules and create more opportunity for disabled people to give direct input about the government’s technology plans. It also called for legislation that would give Congress more power to enforce accessibility standards.

The VA Website Accessibility Act, passed in 2020, created congressional oversight of technology accessibility at VA, but the new report calls for increased congressional oversight over all government agencies to hold them accountable for accessibility compliance.

Biglin is one of many blind or low-vision veterans who say they have been prevented from being able to message their doctors, make appointments or file for benefits online because of accessibility gaps.

“It takes away the confidence you have,” Biglin said. “I want to be independent, but here’s something that’s hindering me. And that’s frustrating.”

The only recourse veterans have if they aren’t able to use a website is to either file a complaint directly with VA or file a lawsuit. But filing complaints often doesn’t result in any meaningful change and lawsuits are expensive, said Eve Hill, a former Justice Department attorney who focuses on disability rights law.

The federal government is required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to ensure any technology that it buys or uses has to be accessible and usable by people with disabilities, she said, but in practice, that often doesn’t happen. Instead, enforcement of this law falls to agencies, which may take years to respond and often do not fix the problems.

“We’ve had the fox guarding the hen house, agencies are supposed to be policing themselves, but it isn’t working out,” Hill said.

The lack of progress on accessibility issues has been frustrating Donald Overton, executive director of the Blinded Veterans Association, who was blinded by a blast injury in 1991 while serving in the Army. For decades, he said, the Blinded Veterans Association has been meeting with VA on this issue but has felt brushed off by VA leadership when it comes to actually implementing changes.

“We feel we’ve been abandoned by the agency that is tasked with providing our care and services for us,” he said.

He said he and other Blind Veterans Association members have experienced usability issues with everything from checking in at kiosks when they arrive at in-person appointments to getting their prescriptions refilled.

VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said in an emailed statement that the department is committed to improving access for veterans and that while most sites don’t 100 percent meet accessibility standards, a vast majority of VA’s most popular sites are at least 95 percent compliant with accessibility standards.

“We will not rest until every VA website is 508 compliant and serves all Veterans,” Hayes wrote. “VA welcomes this oversight from Congress and continues to work hard at improving our online presence.”

It is unclear exactly how other federal websites are performing because the Justice Department, which is supposed to report on the government’s compliance with federal accessibility laws every two years, has not issued a report since 2012. The Justice Department pledged last month to restart its monitoring of federal websites and technology for accessibility compliance after a bipartisan group of senators called for the department to do so.

A separate, independent 2021 report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that 30 percent of the most popular federal websites did not pass an automated accessibility test for their homepage.

Disability advocates say other common issues on federal websites for blind users include issues with managing student loans, signing up for benefits or receiving federal workplace training. For veterans, another common issue is that many are unable to download their own records in an accessible format or they’re unable to use newly released VA apps, according to Timothy Hornik, director of special initiatives for the Blinded Veterans Association.

Hornik, who was blinded in 2004 from a gunshot wound while serving in the Army, said running into these types of problems can be “demoralizing,” but he is encouraged by the fact that Congress is drawing attention to the issue.

He said some VA websites have started to improve in the past few years, and he is hopeful the newest recommendations from Congress will lead to further change, both at VA and in other areas of government.

“It’s a wait and see, but how long do we have to wait to see?” he said.

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