Thursday, August 20, 2009

Disability.gov: An Inside Look at the Government's One-Stop Shop for Disability Information

The recent launch of disability.gov -- actually a relaunch and upgrade of the previously named disability.info -- represented a huge leap forward in the federal government's service to Americans with disabilities. I had a chance to learn more about the site from Kevin Connors, a Department of Labor employee who serves as the program director for the site.

Q: How did DisabilityInfo.gov become Disability.gov?

A: After conducting several focus groups and getting feedback from visitors to our site -- including people with disabilities, family members, caregivers, veterans and many others -- we redesigned the site to make it easier to use and more interactive and useful to our audiences. We changed the name because it’s simpler and easier to remember. Disability.gov represents a new generation of online federal government resources that use social media tools to improve communication, interaction and feedback with visitors.

Q: Did the new administration initiate the idea for the redesigned site, or had it been in the works previously?

A: The disability.gov team began working on a plan to redesign the site last fall. The focus group testing we conducted was part of this effort. Certainly the new administration's acceptance of social media and enforced mandates about government openness and transparency helped us make decisions about what types of tools we wanted to offer, but the overall decision to make this move started with the disability.gov team.

Q: Since I’ve worked for the federal government, I’m amazed that one site can consolidate resources from 22 federal agencies. Was that as hard as it sounds?

A: Absolutely! Working with all the different agencies was a very labor-intensive process, but they were more than willing to participate in the development of the site. One of our first steps on the project was to meet with representatives from each agency to identify subject matter experts to be involved in the development and maintenance of the site, and to gather content for the site from them. We felt this was critical to the future success of the site as these are the people who have the in-depth knowledge about the programs and policies their agencies offer for people with disabilities. We continue to work with our partners to encourage their involvement, and identify new subject matter experts within the agencies.

Q: How does ongoing coordination work? Do each of those agencies have a point of contact who contribute content, or does a group meet on a regular basis?

A: Both. We currently have over 100 contributors that work with us on the site. Each of the agencies work a little bit differently, and we are happy to accommodate whatever setup is most efficient and easiest to implement for them. Some agencies choose to have one point of contact for the project, while others have as many as 20 subject matter experts representing the different operating divisions within those agencies.

We provide each contributor with training on how to upload content from federal agency Web sites to disability.gov using our administrative web tool. This tool allows our partners to add information to disability.gov when and how they choose. We monitor what is added and provide editorial oversight so that the site has a cohesive look and feel, but we felt it was important to put the tool directly in the hands of our contributors.

The disability.gov team meets with our federal agency contributors several times a year, and provides continuous support, coordination, and training via email and phone as well. Through the years, the disability.gov team has established long-lasting relationships with each of our federal agency partners, and this open communication has been the key to the initiative’s success.

Q: I’m sure the expectations for compliance -- for the hearing- and sight-impaired, for example –- are higher for a website like disability.gov than for any other site. How did you make sure the site met all people’s needs?

A: Disability.gov strives to be a leader in accessibility and usability. We work very hard to ensure that we not only comply with the law, but also go above and beyond simply what is required so that the site is accessible for all people. This should be the expectation for every website, not just sites specifically for people with disabilities. Our goal is to be a model for all websites, whether they are disability-related or not.

The disability.gov team tested the redesigned website using a variety of assistive technology software and on various machines with the many different browsers that are available. We also obtained feedback from users with a range of disabilities, some who use assistive technology and some who do not. In our testing, disability.gov exceeded the requirements set forth by Section 508 1194.22 by creating a website that is not only accessible, but also usable, by all visitors. The disability.gov team continues to improve site accessibility as we receive additional visitor feedback.

Q: I’m familiar with Section 508, which requires that federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. Your site claims to also be compatible with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). How are these guidelines different, and what does that mean to the user?

A: Four Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Priority 1 checkpoints, 1.3, 4.1, 6.2 and 14.1, include elements that are either not covered in Section 508 or are slightly more stringent than Section 508 standards. If a website is 508 compliant and the site wants to be WCAG compliant as well, the designers must address these four checkpoints additionally. For example, at this time Section 508 does not specifically address audio description as a requirement for web-based media when the captioned text that is provided is not able to be navigated by screen reader software, but WCAG Priority 1, 1.3 does address this need. Meeting both Section 508 and WCAG guidelines provides an extra layer of accessibility and usability checkpoints, especially when it comes to Web-based multimedia and dynamic content on a site.

Q: Disability.gov is active on Twitter (twitter.com/disabilitygov), and you have a blog and a news feed. How is social media expanding access for people with disabilities?

A: Social media gives people with disabilities a platform to discuss their experiences, find answers to questions, and connect on a common ground. Disability.gov's goal when adding these social media tools was to encourage interaction and feedback with and among its visitors. We've added personalization to the site that didn't exist before, and we'll continue to find more ways to interact as we explore different social media options. Our main goal was to open up communication with our visitors -- we wanted to change from one-way communication to an actual conversation with our visitors.

The redesigned site represents a shift in philosophy from simply broadcasting information to having a true collaboration with the public. These new tools help disability.gov visitors quickly access the information they need and connect with others on disability-related topics. They also offer new ways to organize, share and receive information, and help create communities around subjects of common interest. Visitors can sign up for personalized news and updates, participate in online discussions and suggest resources for the site.

Q: Do you have plans to expand even more -– like a Facebook page or additional interactive features?

A:
We will continue to look into adding new social media features in the coming months, and include the ones we feel are most in line with our goals and would be most useful and relevant to our audiences on disability.gov. Before we redesigned the site, we conducted extensive research on the different tools that are available and selected those we felt were the best fit. This is the process we will continue to use in the future. Our next phase is to add features that allow for personalization, and increase interaction among visitors with features like user forums.

Q: Speaking of Facebook, what are the challenges involved in using the latest technology while adhering to rules and policy affecting federal agencies? For example, President Obama was told he couldn’t use his Blackberry.

A:
The government is currently developing policies that regulate what can and cannot be done. With the Obama administration, there is certainly a great deal of support for use of social media in order to make the government more open and transparent to citizens. The disability.gov team has moved cautiously into the social media realm. We conducted a great deal of research prior to the redesign, and met with several federal agencies that have been using social media in order to develop a set of best practices. We used these best practices, along with a thorough understanding of our audiences and the goals we want to achieve, to develop our approach to engaging in social media.

Q: What else would you like people to know about disability.gov?

A:
Disability.gov is an important resource not only for the more than 50 million Americans with disabilities, but also for parents of children with disabilities, employers, workforce and human resource professionals, veterans, military families, caregivers, and many others. The site offers thousands of resources on disability-related programs and services from the federal government, as well as state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions. Above all, the mission of the site is to connect the disability community to information and opportunities.
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