By Amber Eisenschenk
Access to government information and resources is a fundamental principle all cities and their residents value. But are you sure your digital content — like websites, web apps, documents, and videos — has the function or design needed to be accessible to people with disabilities?
More than 10% of Minnesotans have a disability. In addition, others may have some form of limiting condition that may not technically be considered a “disability,” but that makes it challenging to access information online. Ensuring your city provides equitable digital access to people of all abilities is key to serving all.
And there’s another reason your city should strive for digital accessibility. In recent years, several governmental entities, including six Minnesota cities, have faced lawsuits claiming that the information available on their websites was not in a form that individuals with disabilities could access.
While technology and legal standards are ever-evolving, your city can take certain steps to not only reduce the risk of claims but, more importantly, to better serve its residents.
You may be wondering where to start. The following are five steps any city can implement now to provide reasonable access to web-based public services, as required by Title II of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
STEP 1: Develop an internal plan/policy.
Start with a self-evaluation. Does the city have an internal policy for handling requests for accessibility? If so, is the policy readily available to the public? How accessible is your website to individuals with disabilities? There are free resources, as well as consultants-for-hire, that can assist in identifying areas for accessibility improvement. If you don’t already have one, develop an internal plan for how the city will respond to requests from individuals with disabilities. If you already have an access plan or policy, now would be a good time to review and update it.
As part of any plan, staff should be trained on how to respond to accessibility questions and requests. Consider making it part of a specific position’s job duties to handle accessibility requests. Also, make sure you’ve designated a back-up position to handle such requests. For example, if your city has a clerk and a deputy clerk, include this as a duty in both job descriptions.
- If a request comes in via phone, email, or in person, follow data practices law for the process, and have a conversation with requesters. Ask them what information is not accessible and what format they need to receive the information in. Then keep them updated about the city’s attempts to provide access.
- Document the date, time, and substance of the request, noting the city’s interest in working with the requester.
- Note how the requested information will be provided (e.g., mail, in person).
- Document progress, any problems, and the final response.
- Establish a grievance procedure for resolving complaints or concerns regarding individual access requests.
STEP 2: Provide the public with procedures to access information.
On the city’s website, include the procedure individuals should use if they find that information on your website is not accessible to them. Here’s an example from the City of Blaine (https://www.blainemn.gov/accessibility):
“If you use assistive technology (such as a Braille reader, a screen reader, or TTY) and the format of any material on this website interferes with your ability to access information, please contact us. To enable us to respond in a manner most helpful to you, please indicate the nature of your accessibility problem, the preferred format in which to receive the material, the web address of the requested material, and your contact information. Users who need accessibility assistance can also contact us by phone through the Federal Information Relay Service at [phone number] for TTY/Voice communication.”
Include the contact information for the staff member who is responsible for processing these requests.
STEP 3: Try to make the changes that have the most impact now.
The U.S. Department of Justice has created a list of specific recommendations for making changes to websites, based on the complaints they see most frequently. Review your city’s website to see if you can make some of the changes now. There are free and low-cost online resources that can assist a city in becoming more digitally accessible.
- Provide text descriptions of all photos and graphics.
- Ensure proper color contrast to allow for greater visibility. This means if you have specific colors for fonts or logos as part of your city’s branding, you may have to use slightly different, but similar, colors on your website to ensure proper contrast.
- Include accessible features, such as closed captioning, with videos and other multimedia.
- Structure web page content in a logical reading order, with clear headings and subheads.
- Post documents in an accessible format. Electronic documents in formats such as Word, PDF, Excel, and PowerPoint may be accessible if they are created and maintained properly to be compatible with screen readers.
More complex changes:
- Include a “skip navigation” link at the top of web pages that allows people who use screen readers to ignore navigation links and skip directly to web page content.
- Minimize blinking, flashing, or other distracting features. If they must be included, ensure that moving, blinking, or auto-updating objects or pages may be paused or stopped.
- Design online forms to include descriptive HTML tags that provide people with disabilities the information they need to complete and submit the forms.
- Include visual notification and transcripts if sounds automatically play.
- Provide a second, static copy of pages that are auto-refreshing or that require a timed response.
- Use titles, context, and other heading structures to help users navigate complex pages or elements (such as web pages that use frames).
STEP 4: Make sure employment opportunities are accessible.
Review online application procedures to identify possible barriers to employment for people with disabilities. This will help your city attract the broadest pool of qualified candidates.
Doing this will also reduce the likelihood of a claim that your website or job applications process is not fully accessible to people with disabilities, such as those who are blind or have low vision, are deaf or hard of hearing, or have physical disabilities affecting manual dexterity (such as limited ability to use a mouse).
Whatever process you use for advertising and accepting applications, consider what changes can be made to facilitate a more accessible process. If using an online application process, consider adopting standards that conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 (see Step 5 for more about these guidelines).
STEP 5: Raise your standards and add a statement now.
While the ADA does not yet specify a standard for local government websites or electronic materials, the law does require that programs and services are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.
The tech industry seems to agree that the WCAG 2.1 level AA standard is the best available to satisfy this requirement. If your city has any plans to update or alter its website, you should consider these standards as part of the planning phase and discuss them with your web developer. (Learn more about WCAG at www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag.)
If your city is not able to make changes just now, consider adding a statement to your website about your plans for the future. For example: “We are in the process of assessing the accessibility of the city’s website and its electronic documents to establish a plan to comply with and follow best practices set forth in website accessibility standards under Section 508 of the federal Workforce Rehabilitation Act and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 A and AA.”
Of course, even if compliance with WCAG is not currently possible, a city should consider Steps 1–4 outlined here when developing or updating its website accessibility plan.
For more information and links to resources on this topic, visit: www.lmc.org/accessibilitysteps. If you receive notice of a legal claim against the city, please immediately contact the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amber Eisenschenk is research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 281-1227.