FOR MOST PEOPLE in Massachusetts, the biggest hassle about using digital technology is often a slow internet connection, a buggy device, or being in an inconvenient location to whip out a computer. But those with disabilities can face much bigger challenges when trying to use basic state digital infrastructure, finding it hard to access, hard to use, maybe even impossible to see.
To help close that digital divide, the Healey administration said it will hire a “chief IT accessibility officer” to make sure that the state’s websites and digital applications are easier to access and use. And to oversee and guide that work, Gov. Maura Healey issued an executive order on Wednesday — the 33rd anniversary of passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act — creating a new Digital Accessibility and Equity Governance Board.
The executive order “represents our commitment to supporting individuals with disabilities and making government more accessible and equitable for all,” Healey said.
Kim Charlson, executive director of the library at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, said society needs to accelerate technological changes designed to accommodate those with disabilities. “The increasing digitization of our society has been inevitable because of technological change, and the expansion of online engagement was certainly accelerated by the pandemic,” Charlson said at the executive order announcement event. “However, the social change for people with disabilities to be included in that technical change has not kept pace.”
The new Digital Accessibility and Equity Governance Board will oversee the establishment, adoption, and maintenance of digital accessibility standards on state platforms from inside the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security and in coordination with other secretariats.
The announcement comes one day after the Biden administration rolled out a proposed Justice Department rule to establish certain accessibility standards for websites and app-based services maintained by state and local governments. About 25 percent of Americans live with disabilities, the White House said.
According to a 2021 Pew Research Center study, about 80 percent of people rely on digital methods for accessing government services, said Technology Services and Security Secretary Jason Snyder. State technology must be “simple to use, accessible, equitable, and responsive,” he said.
“The prior experience interacting with Mass. digital services resulted in different outcomes based on the application or website they are visiting,” Snyder said. “We can do better. Providing a consistent means of digital accessibility for all is an essential goal. When we build digital services for people with different needs, we build better for everyone.”
Something as straightforward as ensuring that digital resources are navigable through keyboards alone, for example, would be a tremendous help to users who, for motor or cognitive reasons, cannot or prefer not to use a pointer.
“It is not uncommon for people to design websites or materials inadvertently so that they break accessibility for keyboard users, meaning I can’t use the tab to focus on a link and I can’t press enter to activate it,” said Geoff Freed, director of digital accessibility consulting at Perkins Access, which is part of Perkins School for the Blind. “And so ensuring that these materials can be used from the keyboard alone and all links can be accessed and all buttons, controls, forms and everything can be operated is one way of ensuring that people who might have a disability and can’t use a mouse will have access. But it also points out the importance of accessible design and how it benefits absolutely everybody.”
There is overlap between changes that would benefit those with vision issues and other communities, Freed noted.
He cited as an example alternative text, which describes images on a webpage. Since page loading is faster with images turned off, people in more rural areas without brisk internet may opt to have websites display picture-free. Those users could read alternative text to get a sense of the illustration or chart without sacrificing loading speeds.
The executive order lays out a full set of obligations for the board, which will include the chief IT accessibility officer, all secretaries of executive offices, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for access and opportunity, the executive director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability, the commissioners of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, and “members of the public with expertise or lived experience with digital accessibility issues.”
Board members are required to meet at least four times a year and provide a written report each year on findings and recommendations.
Charlson, who has limited vision among other disabilities, and Freed said a vital part of the board’s composition is people with disabilities, not just experts in the field.
“There is an adage that we follow in the world of accessibility, which is ‘not about us without us,’” Freed said, referencing Charlson’s remarks. “Include people with disabilities so that you have our perspectives on what actually works.”