Podcast Transcript – Why meeting new federal mandates for digital accessibility makes good business sense

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Wyatt: Welcome to FedScoop’s podcast series on digital transformation in government brought to you today by Deque Systems. I’m your host Wyatt Kash. In today’s episode we’re talking about the importance of meeting new national mandates for online accessibility and about tools that make it easier to deliver on those mandates effectively. Our guest today is Preety Kumar CEO and founder of Deque Systems, a leader in the field of information accessibility. Welcome to the program.

Preety: Thank you, Wyatt, pleasure to be here and to speak to your audience.

Wyatt: Terrific. As many government sector leaders know, new federal mandates came out in January of this year concerning online accessibility to federal websites, electronic content and information technology. The rules are primarily aimed at aiding people with disabilities, and represent a significant update to what’s known as section 508 standards and section 255 guidelines for information and communications technology. Among other things, the new rules require agencies to take a fresh look at their electronic documents used for official business such as notifications, administrative claims or proceedings, notices of benefits, employment opportunities, forms, training materials and much much more. But we like to get into what they now must do to meet those mandates.

So Preety, let me first ask what types of organizations are actually affected by these new updated mandates, and why is it important for them to pay attention to them?

Preety: Great question, Wyatt. It’s a very wide swath of people that are going to be impacted because basically for Section 508 refresh any technology that federal government uses, buys or procures has to be 508 compliant, or 508 refresh compliant now. So any independent software vendors that actually sells anything to the federal government, whether it’s a on-premise software solution or a SaaS solution, will have to update their compliance level to this new standard. All of them are going to be impacted – that’s most of Silicon Valley and a number of other folks. All the system integrators that build any IT technology with a front-end interface for the government are going to be impacted, so the Northrop Grummans of the world, the Accentures of the world, etc…

And then finally, ultimately it’s the federal government, anything they use is going to be impacted as well. Then we see a ripple effect downstream from that where all of the state and local governments and educational institutions have long had the tradition of saying “Well, you know we’ve got a very well defined standard, the 508 and we’ll follow that,” but now all of them will have to do a refresh as well, so I think it’s going to be a far-reaching impact.

Wyatt: Talk to me a little about what kinds of assessments that IT leaders will need to make to determine the range of fixes, and what kinds of fixes they need to make. What are some of the challenges you think IT staffs are likely to encounter while identifying and implementing those fixes?

Preety: That’s a great question as well.

What will organizations need to do? Firstly, they need to know where they stand: “Where am I today?” with respect to the new standard. They’ve been following standards that were written a couple of decades ago, written for old technologies, old browsers, old assistive technologies. A lot has changed in 20 years.

So they will have to take stock of “what the Delta is,” “what the Gap is,” where they stand today before they determine a plan or any kind of a road map of what to do next, right? So WCAG Level A and Level AA is the new section 508 refresh standard, and Deque did a pretty extensive survey looking at the most popular 10 websites of federal government agencies. We saw that in terms of the number of sheer requirements they have to meet, it’s three times the requirements from the original set of requirements. In terms of the remediation efforts, they can expect to do at least twice as much work than they have been doing in their current efforts. So the best way that we recommend, especially with all the digital transformation going on, is for all these people who are dealing with the section 508 refresh to start doing it early. Shift it left. Make sure your developers are building it in rather than doing the retrofitting, because it’s going to be a lot of work.

Wyatt: I know one of the other concerns that you’ve raised is the risk of coding errors and service disruptions. Can you talk a little bit more about how agencies need to think about avoiding that, you mentioned shifting left?

Preety: You know what we have found after working with our customers was that one of the biggest problems with compliance, with any compliance, whether it’s security or accessibility, is that it shouldn’t become disruptive to their business. It shouldn’t really disrupt their release schedule, but that’s what seems to be happening. The reason it’s happening is because people are doing it the wrong way.

You know it’s as simple as that. The whole agile transformation, digital transformation, DevOps everything is going on in agencies, in these system integrators, in these independent software vendors for sure, They go through this rapid release cycle or even a continuous integration environment where they’re releasing every day.

Accessibility is something that is an afterthought. They get to the end, and they’re in production, check and go ‘Oops, there are hundred defects that we need to fix, okay?’ So what’s going to happen is that, till they get a lawsuit, till they get a complaint, they tend to keep adding it to the backlog and not paying attention because it really slows something down when you find a defect in production. It’s a hundred times more expensive to fix it.

It takes a lot more time than a developer just building it in. So developers writie code, and they go ‘oh I see an image’, I can just add an ‘alt’ tag and it would help me be compliant. The reason that’s happening is what we need to pay attention to because traditionally all the tools, all the equipment was equipment that was designed to scan and report, scan and report, scan and report. That’s a wonderful thing to do in the 1990s, not so much in the 2020s. And Deque was looking ahead, and we built products that would really help developers the way they work in an agile environment make sure they can catch accessibility things as they’re coding, so they never have to do this disruptive deprioritization of their business to deal with compliance.

Wyatt: Well, I’m sure agencies no doubt wish there was some sort of easy button they could hit to implement these updates. What are your recommendations for how they should go about this? If not, that make it easier or at least more efficient?

Preety: I think the key to making things easy is automating as much as you can. You know the different ways of automating things.

But shifting it left, letting developers prevent the issues from ever being introduced in the first place is really a big part of making accessibility easier. Another really important element making things easy, is at the education of the training. There is no university that trains people on accessibility.

There’s a big gap in training and education of people coming out of any computer science or information systems program of knowing what to do with accessibility. Giving them an easy digestible way to learn, what they need to do just in time when they need to know it. That’s how we learn today. Give me a little video snippet, a little contextual help in the tool that I’m going to be using is very important. So automate as much as you can which is what we have done with our Axe core open source rule engine which helps automate so automation, on-demand digestible training. If you do nothing else, that will help you get much closer to that easy button. I’ll tell you that.

Wyatt: Can you offer an example of how specialized tools, like those your company offers, has actually helped agencies reduce the risks and the costs associated with implementing Agile development changes and in particular like those that are coming down the pike here now with the 508 standard and the 225 mandate?

Anybody who actually browses a website or mobile applications will see that we have gone through a big transformation in the way information is presented to us as users, right? You don’t have oogles of web pages and links that you have to go through pages are being dynamically updated. In fact, they don’t even change it’s a single page app.

But that single page app is developed by many developers ,many different developers who are in charge of little pieces of that page, right? The way these developers work is everything is changing under foot, and they’re changing with that. The pace of change is mind-boggling, but what you ought to be able to do is give them a way that accessibility is just a part of their tools set they don’t have to go and work in a different way.
They don’t have to learn anything different. It’s just there how to fix it is right there and mobile developers today use browser dev tool bars like the Chrome Dev tools and our tools are built right into that so as they’re doing their everyday job, they can build an accessibility. In fact Google had their own rule engine and they decided to put that project to rest and use Deque open source axe core rule engine. So it’s become a de facto standard really and the goal was that people who were worried about security and all the enterprise problems, right my set of rules that I have to follow in a secure environment would be able to still have these de facto rules that are accepted by organizations like Google and Microsoft and have contributions from Oracle and yet be able to use that same rule set in a commercial safe environment using our products.

How it can save them time and money? It removes that afterthought step making it part of business as usual.

Wyatt: Well, finally, as someone who’s followed the information accessibility space for a while, what would you say to people about the potential consequences if they don’t comply or don’t take these mandates as seriously as they should?

Preety: Well, I’m no lawyer. I will tell you that. I don’t really know what the consequences will be. It could be employees internally complaining. It could be the public filing a complaint, but I see this as the risk aspect of things. You can see the brand damage, which is hard to quantify. I know that if I’m a millennial, these millennials are socially very active, if they hear about a brand that is being uncaring and trying to exclude a population from equal access they will not react very nicely to that.

But I think to me it’s actually a lost opportunity because the real problem that people have is that universal design, including people with disabilities in your thinking about your creation of your user interfaces, is really going to make your design better for everybody.

Wyatt: Well, I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today, Preety. Thanks so much for joining us to talk about the new federal mandates coming out concerning online accessibility for federal websites and electronic content, and thanks to Deque systems for underwriting today’s episode. Look for more of our coverage on digital transformation and government on Fedscoop.com.

This is Wyatt Kash. Thanks for tuning in.

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