Casey releases VA report showing only 10 percent of VA’s websites are accessible for people with disabilities, including blind, deaf and paralyzed veterans
Chairman Casey’s 2020 legislation requires the VA to make information public regarding which VA websites are accessible for people with disabilities
One fourth of all veterans have a disability from military service
Washington, D.C. – This week, U.S. Senate Aging Committee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) led a bipartisan, bicameral group of committee leaders in sending a letter to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough urging the agency to improve VA website accessibility for disabled veterans. The letter was signed by the Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee and the Chairs and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, among others.
Chairman Casey is also releasing a recent report from the VA that shows only 10 percent of VA websites are fully accessible for people with disabilities, as required by law, posing barriers to deaf, blind and paralyzed veterans. This report was required by Chairman Casey’s bipartisan VA Website Accessibility Act, which became law in 2020, and mandates that the VA issue reports to Congress on the accessibility of its websites, along with a plan to make them accessible. Because the report lacked key details, such as a detailed remediation plan and timeline, Chairman Casey and his colleagues are calling on the VA to resubmit its report with more information, including what the agency is doing to fix its websites.
Veterans use VA websites to access a range of benefits, including health care, disability claims, education and training, housing assistance and more. VA employees also use VA websites to serve veterans. Without full accessibility of all its websites, veterans face barriers accessing the benefits they earned through their sacrifices to our country, and disabled VA employees face barriers in effectively providing those benefits.
“We write with continuing concern regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) poor compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was amended nearly a quarter century ago to require government electronic and information technology, including websites, to be accessible for individuals with disabilities. A report required by the VA Website Accessibility Act of 2019 showed that only eight percent of VA’s internet sites and six percent of its intranet sites are fully compliant with Section 508. This lack of compliance is a problem for the one-quarter of all veterans with a service-connected disability, as well as the 26 percent of the general public with a disability, including veterans, VA employees and people who might seek information from the Department on behalf of a veteran,” wrote the signers.
“Given the enormous task facing VA, the lack of substantive remediation plans and the uneven progress toward compliance spanning multiple presidential administrations, we seek additional information about the Department’s plans to improve its Section 508 compliance.”
The letter was signed by Senate Aging Committee Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-SC) and Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) and Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-KS), as well as House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA-41) and Ranking Member Michael Bost (R-IL-12). House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Chair Elaine Luria (D-VA-2) and Ranking Member Troy Nehls (R-TX-22) as well as Subcommittee on Technology Modernization Chairman Frank Mrvan (D-IN-1) and Ranking Member Matthew Rosendale (R-MT-AL) also joined Senator Casey in sending the letter.
Below is a timeline of Chairman Casey’s work on the issue of VA web accessibility:
March 2020: Senator Casey introduced the bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act alongside Senator Moran and Representative Luria directing the VA to report to Congress regarding the accessibility of VA websites to people with disabilities.
December 2020: Senator Casey’s Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act became law (P.L. 116-213).
January 2021: Senator Casey sent a letter to then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to confirm the VA was taking steps to implement the VA Website Accessibility Act and ensuring robust enforcement of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act after reports that the agency was not meeting standards of accessibility established by those laws.
April 2021: Senator Casey sent a letter following up on concerns on VA website accessibility with VA Secretary McDonough.
September 2021: VA transmitted a report to Congress regarding Section 508 compliance.
March 2022: Senator Casey received responses from VA to questions from his April 2021 letter.
Read the letter to VA Secretary McDonough here.
The Honorable Denis McDonough
United States Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary McDonough:
We write with continuing concern regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) poor compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was amended nearly a quarter century ago to require government electronic and information technology, including websites, to be accessible for individuals with disabilities. A report required by the VA Website Accessibility Act of 2019 showed that only eight percent of VA’s internet sites and six percent of its intranet sites are fully compliant with Section 508. This lack of compliance is a problem for the one-quarter of all veterans with a service-connected disability, as well as the 26 percent of the general public with a disability, including veterans, VA employees and people who might seek information from the Department on behalf of a veteran. Furthermore, 46 percent of our Nation’s roughly 19 million veterans are 65 years or older; as a group, older adults experience higher rates of disabilities than the general population. Unfortunately, VA’s report omitted important details about the Department’s plans to address these long-standing problems and, in multiple cases, did not include remediation plans for key organizations within VA. We are also concerned that VA’s outreach on Section 508 compliance does not cover a comprehensive range of disabilities and that a lack of clear responsibility within the Department, low prioritization and ongoing contracting problems are hampering VA’s ability to correct its deficiencies.
VA’s Website Accessibility Act report to Congress was mandated so VA would be required to show how the agency will fix its websites for all Americans, but it was incomplete and lacked key details. The submissions from the National Cemetery Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) were less than one page long and failed to include substantial plans for remediation. The report also: (1) did not include detailed timelines for remediation for VA as a whole or any organizational element except for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA); (2) failed to explain how VA will prioritize websites for remediation; and (3) lacked plans for sustained involvement from stakeholders representing different disabilities. For these reasons, VA’s report failed to meet the law’s requirements.
Based on recent discussions with veteran service organizations, disability groups, outside experts and VA itself, we do not believe VA is conducting sufficient outreach on Section 508 remediation. Examples of disabilities protected by Section 508 include, but are not limited to, visual disabilities, hearing disabilities, cognitive impairment and physical disabilities. Yet, during a meeting on March 24, VA officials stated that they receive “anecdotal feedback” from individuals with disabilities other than blindness, which we view as insufficient. According to VA, “more than 185,000 veterans who use VA for their health care have been diagnosed with at least one [traumatic brain injury],” a condition that can cause cognitive impairment. VA has also noted that “[h]earing problems… are by far the most prevalent service-connected disability among American veterans.” VA’s outreach to the blind community is of great importance but should be a starting point rather than an ending point. VA must include a broader range of individuals with disabilities in the remediation process in a substantive and sustained way.
During the March meeting, VA officials indicated that hundreds of thousands of Section 508 compliance issues remain to be resolved across the Department’s various websites. Furthermore, they informed our staff that VA has been unable to scan its websites for compliance with Section 508 since October 2021, due to a lapsed contract. Our offices were unaware of that development, which has significant bearing on the agency’s ability to ensure its websites are accessible. Such issues are the latest examples of long-standing Section 508 shortfalls facing the VA. For example, in 2016, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an audit of the MyCareers@VA website, which found that Department officials “did not address nearly 200 known Section 508 compliance issues and did not seek certification of compliance” before launching an “enhanced version” of the MyCareer@VA website in 2015. The OIG cited several reasons for this outcome, including inadequate policy guidance from VA leadership, inadequate processes to ensure 508 compliance and inadequate oversight of contractors.
Given the enormous task facing VA, the lack of substantive remediation plans and the uneven progress toward compliance spanning multiple presidential administrations, we seek additional information about the Department’s plans to improve its Section 508 compliance. We ask that you continue to provide our offices with briefings from the appropriate VA offices beginning in June 2022. In addition, we ask that VA provide the information and documents requested below:
- Please resubmit a revised VA Website Accessibility Act report containing the omitted information, including:
- Detailed information for remediating the National Cemetery Administration and VBA websites.
- Detailed information on how VA will involve a range of stakeholders, including people with disabilities and their advocates, in soliciting accessibility problems and testing remediated websites.
- Specific details on how VA is going to prioritize which websites it fixes first, as well as remediation timelines for both the entire VA and each organizational subdivision.
- Please also provide copies of compliance audits completed by VA’s Section 508 office that provide supporting evidence for the compliance gaps or barriers to Section 508 compliance identified in VA’s plans.
- In VA Central Office and the Office of Information and Technology’s report to Congress, the Department states that it will “[a]dvocate for the creation of a VA Accessibility Offic[e]” as part of its Section 508 remediation plan. This office “will provide policy and training support to the enterprise as well as the operational tasks of assisting the enterprise in the remediation of accessibility issues.” It would also “combine the Section 501, Section 504 and Section 508 offices” into the new enterprise-wide office. Please provide an update on the status of this office and a timeline for its establishment, and answer the following questions:
- Which office or offices at VA currently has responsibility for overseeing the VA’s Section 508 remediation efforts? Please describe how that office oversees the entire agency, and how individual VA organizations like VHA, VBA and the National Cemetery Administration report back to them on their Section 508 efforts.
- Are there specific projects, including but not limited to VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization contract, that are subject to a different Section 508 reporting process than the rest of VA? If so, what is the justification for setting up a different reporting process?
- In what specific ways would a central VA Accessibility Office help VA improve its Section 508 compliance and remediation process compared to the current structure?
- Please describe what steps VA is currently taking or will take to engage with groups representing different classes of disabilities. How does VA plan to broaden its current outreach to be more inclusive of different types of disabilities, including but not limited to the ones outlined in this letter?
- During the March meeting, VA informed our staff that a lapsed contract had rendered the Department unable to scan its websites for compliance with Section 508 since October 2021. Contracting plays a major role in Section 508 compliance, both in the form of remediation and in the form of delivering accessible novel technology.
- VA recently proposed regulations to improve its evaluation of information technology projects for Section 508 compliance, an issue that the VA’s OIG identified as a problem for the Department in 2016. The proposed regulations specifically call for including a Section 508 checklist in VA solicitations and establishing a website to help contractors with Section 508 standards.
- How does the VA currently evaluate contractors’ ability to meet specific requirements for Section 508 accessibility and ensure that contractors are aware of those requirements?
- Does the VA have plans to further strengthen how it evaluates the ability of contractors to carry out work in compliance with Section 508?
- Disability advocates have raised concern that VA is seeking waivers from Section 508 for some ongoing projects, including its new electronic health record system.
- Please outline VA’s process for determining the need for and approving a Section 508 waiver, including the circumstances under which a waiver can be requested, how these waivers are evaluated and which office or individual is responsible for approving a waiver. Are these processes uniform across VA, its components, contractors and subcontractors? If not, how do they differ, and what is the justification for those differences?
- Please provide a list of all waivers or other variances from the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that VA, one of its components, contractors, or subcontractors, has sought or operated under since January 1, 2019. Please individually justify the rationale for all waivers the Department has sought.
- Veterans service organizations have expressed concern that VA’s patient check-in kiosks remain an issue for individuals with disabilities. Those kiosks are scheduled to be phased out, but we are concerned that veterans may face access issues in the meantime.
- What is the current rollout schedule for VHA’s mobile app? When does the VA currently expect to begin and complete its phase out of kiosks?
- How does VA provide accessible services in the meantime?
- What kind of training is provided to VA staff to assist individuals with disabilities at VA medical centers?
- How will VA ensure that the mobile application replacing the kiosks is accessible to people with disabilities, and ensure that veterans without access to mobile phones will have ready access to VA services?
Given these long-standing issues, we seek your commitment to prioritize Section 508 compliance and keep our offices abreast of developments concerning your remediation efforts. We ask that VA schedule the first briefing to begin answering the above questions by the end of June 2022. In addition to answering our questions, we welcome information about whether VA has the resources, personnel, and legislative authorities necessary to comply with the law and improve accessibility. We look forward to working with you on this important issue.