Digital accessibility is one of the Council’s top advocacy priorities for 2023—and beyond. The good news is that state agencies are making progress in this area. The not-so-good news, as agency heads themselves admit, is that there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
The Council has been leading the charge on digital equity on public facing government websites. Executive Director Denise Jess believes that a key to sustaining the progress is for people to report problems as they encounter them. “Even as some improvements are made, there are legacy things that still don’t work,” Denise says.
Common problems public websites often present for users with vision loss include:
- If the website isn’t coded correctly, navigation is difficult to impossible for those using screen readers.
- Images on websites aren’t consistently tagged with alternative text. For example, an image of a pie chart labeled “Covid % who get medically ill” may just say “image” if it is not alt-tagged. Alt text generated by artificial intelligence sometimes makes it worse. One user reports a Department of Natural Resources photo of a turtle being described as a “chocolate donut.”
- If forms aren’t properly coded, a user will not know where to type which information.
The Council’s advocacy on these issues has made an impression on Trina Zanow, Chief Information Officer in the Department of Administration’s (DOA) Division of Enterprise Technology (DET). The Council first reached out to DOA about accessibility in 2021.
“Denise had such a profound impact on me as a person that we knew we needed to take the opportunity to shine the light on our staff and increase our efforts for training and education,” Trina says. “We know we are not perfect and it’s a continuous journey for us.
DET is responsible for managing all the state’s information technology as well as the use of that technology to improve government service delivery. The Enterprise Service Desk page of their website has contact information for customers seeking help or wishing to file a complaint.
Trina says that prior to 2021, she believed her department “had a lens toward accessibility, but not a lens toward customer experience as we should have.” Now the Division is prioritizing the accessibility of the important forms available to the public at Access Wisconsin, a site where people can apply for state benefits to help with everything from childcare to health coverage to nutritional assistance.
Clint Hackett is Chief Information Officer at the Department of Health Services. He says one key for a more successful government website is working with software vendors to ensure that accessibility features are in place. He learned this during the pandemic when DHS needed to create sites and forms related to COVID vaccinations.
“Because we were working with an established vendor (Microsoft), we expected that there would be built-in features for people who needed accessibility,” Clint says. That did not turn out to be the case. “We had to go back to Microsoft. To their credit, they were quick to acknowledge and rectify.” Clint emphasizes that testing must also be built into the accessibility process. He says the Council has been a valuable partner in that testing.
Recent elections have been teaching points in digital accessibility for the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). Amid continued political scrutiny over how polls were run since 2020, WEC officials have been working with partners, including the Council, to ensure accessible voting.
“The requirement for each polling place to have accessible voting equipment with an audio tactile interface is not new, but as technology continues to improve, the WEC certifies new and better equipment and decertifies outdated models,” says Regina Hein, the state elections administrator in charge of accessibility. “We know that just having this equipment at polling places doesn’t improve accessibility unless it’s being used. As part of our Site Review Program, we review polling places for ADA compliance and compliance with state statute and the Voting Rights Act.”
Regina says training is critical. “After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, we were able to pick up with reviews for all four elections conducted in 2022. The data we collect in combination with reports from voters informs the training we provide to clerks to improve usage. Last fall I collaborated with a local election official and members of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, including Denise Jess, to produce a training webinar for clerks on best practices for using accessible voting equipment. Since then, we’ve seen an increase in poll workers offering accessible voting equipment to every voter as they check in so they know it’s available to them whether or not they are able to see the machine in the voting area.”
WEC is also focused on voters seeking online information. According to Regina, the My Vote Wisconsin website improves access to voting by providing online availability of standard government forms. Filling out forms online allows users to customize the webpage for their preferences and needs. My Vote’s compatibility with screen reader technology allows for independence in registering to vote, obtaining a ballot and contacting your local election official.
“In 2020 the My Vote team did some work on both the Absentee Request and Online Voter Registration (OVR) processes where certain processes were not selectable when using a screen-reader,” Regina says. “In the absentee request process, the checkbox was not selectable without a mouse and in the OVR process, the yes/no eligibility questions were not selectable or able to be navigated without a mouse.” Regina reports that both issues have been fixed.
Voters can contact the Commission with accessibility questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has also made progress on website accessibility. DNR Digital Communications Manager Katie Grant says she had somewhat of an awakening on the issue at a 2019 conference for government social media managers. A presenter who is deaf, speaking with a sign language interpreter, stated “We’ve become an afterthought.”
“And it shouldn’t be,” Katie says. “This was at the same time we were making a big push to be more diverse and inclusive. So, it all came together in the right place at the right time.” That spring, accessibility was in the forefront in the design of a new agency website.
“We were very cognizant when we were choosing our web platform,” Katie remembers. They went with software that didn’t require extra coding for accessibility, meaning that if one of their web persons is unfamiliar with accessible input, the software takes care of it. She notes, however, that there are still bugs they’re working through, especially with alt text.
Katie says the best way for customers to contact the DNR about accessibility issues is to email email@example.com.
Another example of state government prioritizing accessibility is DHS’s consideration of a proposal from the Governor’s Council on People with Disabilities for the agency to add a Digital Accessibility Coordinator staff position. According to Lisa Sobczyk of DHS, funding for the position is not included in the department’s biennial budget proposal, and the Governor’s Council did not identify funding in its recommendation. Nevertheless, Lisa is convinced that filling the job would be beneficial. “We have provided extensive technical assistance to state agencies and the Governor’s office on website and document accessibility,” Lisa says. “However, this is a small portion of several people’s jobs, and a dedicated person might be able to make more headway in addressing these issues.”
In spite of the progress, there are still state government sites with poor accessibility. The State Senate and Assembly legislative websites are glaring examples. Unlike state agencies, legislative websites are outside of DOA’s management. The Council will continue to advocate for improvements to these and other websites Wisconsinites with vision loss rely on.