As our society and interactions increasingly exist and occur in digital spaces, legislators are placing greater emphasis on the extension of internet access. One recent initiative could deliver more equitable government benefits and services online.
In November 2021, US President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The legislation includes a section designating significant funding for online efforts through the Digital Equity Act (DEA). The DEA aims to bring improved internet and digital access to millions of Americans who don’t currently have the resources or abilities to use these services.
Who the DEA Supports
The DEA will address well-documented digital inequities, including offering support for the education and training of low-income populations. The law will also improve online accessibility for social service organizations to aid people with disabilities. Finally, funding opportunities will offer rural communities a chance to gauge and upgrade their broadband access.
Recent statistics showcase how the digital divide causes a domino effect of inequity, especially now that vital tasks such as applying for jobs, completing academic assignments and seeking government services often require access to online resources. Even if these individuals can find work, complete their studies or collect unemployment without such access, the process is often far more arduous, therefore eliminating the possibility of equity.
How Government Agencies Can Use DEA Grants
The DEA has three separate grant programs with different focuses:
- The State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program offers $60 million in funding for state governments. Recipients can use those funds to identify barriers preventing digital equity, develop measurable plans for addressing them, assess the impact of the programs on the state’s goals and detail the collaborative efforts with municipalities, educational institutions and other stakeholders.
- The State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program allocates $1.44 billion to implement and maintain the development of initiatives that states developed in the planning stage.
- The Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program offers $1.25 billion in funding that is available to a broader range of recipients, including non-profits, political subdivisions, workforce development programs and others engaged in digital inclusion initiatives.
Government agencies and state officials can use these funds to make important updates to internet infrastructure and drive more educational efforts, but they also must take a moment to consider their websites themselves. Giving more individuals access to the internet is one thing, but ensuring people with disabilities, among others, can engage sites and enjoy an equitable online experience is a separate vital consideration.
Web Pages, Including Government Sites, Often Lack Accessibility
Advocates for the rights of people with disabilities are applauding the new legislation and hoping that it signals positive changes online. Website creators continue to fail in prioritizing access or making use of resources available to them.
For instance, accessiBe’s 2021 audit found that just 2% of the 350 million active US websites can claim they are fully accessible to people with disabilities. Even government websites, including that of the landmark accessibility law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), demonstrated shortcomings in a recent audit.
Although passing the DEA indicates that the US government appreciates the importance of equitable online access, individual agencies can and should start the process within their own organizations. Technologies like Verbit’s captioning and audio description solutions are already helping many government organizations remedy their online accessibility challenges.
Fortunately, the funds from the DEA may prompt changes, especially because DEA grants are a form of federal funding tied to specific accessibility requirements for receiving state and municipal agencies. Legal accessibility obligations online come from several sources.
- The Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Agencies receiving federal grants must meet the web accessibility requirements listed in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law includes updates that address digital standards directly and relies on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.
- State Accessibility Legislation: Many state laws require accessibility online and may codify the same standards as Section 504. Following WCAG 2.0 will likely meet the state’s requirements, as well as those of Section 504.
- The ADA: Although the ADA does not explicitly address digital accessibility, courts may agree that its “public accommodations” accessibility mandates apply to online spaces.
Improve Online Accessibility Today
Although the DEA will help extend internet access to additional communities, people with disabilities can only benefit if websites support their needs. State and local governments looking to improve their web accessibility can start by offering a few essential resources, many of which Verbit can deliver.
Captioning video and audio content is one of the more often used accommodations and necessary to support access for the 37.5 million American adults who report trouble hearing. Instructional videos, public announcements, press releases and any other content containing an audio component should have captions. Additionally, live captioning is now a standard offering that includes these audiences in real-time. Verbit’s captioning helps support government bodies in their missions to meet accessibility benchmarks defined for equitable experiences.
Individuals who are blind or who have low vision often miss out on the context displayed visually and images and video content shared on government sites. Without access to that information, they cannot have an equitable experience. Audio description can remedy the situation.
Screen Reader Compatibility
Screen readers are devices that people who are blind rely on when navigating websites. The technology translates text into audio or braille format. Many government websites fail to ensure that their content is accessible to these devices. For instance, PDFs are not automatically compatible with this tool.
Color contrast errors are another issue that audits of government websites often identify. People who have color-related vision disabilities may not be able to read the information on a website without sufficient color contrast. Some tools rate the contrast between colors so that website creators know that they are providing textual information that these members of their audiences can access.
The DEA may serve as a powerful step toward improved online accessibility. The funding is an opportunity for many agencies, but it will take careful consideration and strategizing to allocate those resources wisely.
Verbit works with government agencies to improve the accessibility of their site content, events, videos and more. Contact us to learn how our secure and convenient captioning, transcription and audio description services can help your organization.