The internet has become an integral part of most people’s daily lives. This is truer than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, when most of us are spending a great deal of time in our homes interacting with the outside world through websites, apps and video conferences.
Unfortunately, despite some efforts by a few officials and agencies and clear state mandates and federal laws, blind Nevadans like me and the thousands represented by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and its Nevada affiliate, of which I serve as president, still can’t access many of the state’s internet resources. This is hindering blind Nevadans’ ability to connect to educational resources during this time of remote learning and access information and services from the state of Nevada, such as registering to vote, procuring and accessing healthcare, applying for unemployment benefits, and much more.
I find this extremely frustrating as a blind mom and as a citizen.
Like many of my fellow blind Nevadans, I use screen reader technology to access my computer, my smart phone, and the digital information to which they provide access. This technology converts the information that is normally displayed on a computer or phone’s screen into spoken words, or into Braille if a blind person has a device called a refreshable Braille display connected to the computer or phone. Although screen readers are very powerful, websites and apps have to be coded to give them information about certain things, such as the content of graphics and images. In some cases, screen reader users can’t locate or input information easily, or at all, if websites are not screen-reader compatible. When a website is not coded to work well with screen readers, we say that it is inaccessible.
Inaccessibility is a problem for blind people across the internet, and it is particularly pernicious when we cannot access crucial information and resources from our government. But it’s not just an inconvenience; it’s a violation of federal law, specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. State government and other political entities are required to provide access to their programs to people with disabilities on an equal basis and in ways that are equally effective, and this applies to state websites.
The National Federation of the Blind of Nevada has been trying to get the state to act upon this legal and moral obligation since 2018. In May of that year, I wrote to then-Gov. Brian Sandoval and other state officials to express our concern that the vast majority of the state’s websites were not accessible to blind residents and to request the opportunity to discuss a global plan to fix them. The ensuing discussions yielded some positive results; the state issued ADA Technology Accessibility Guidelines and made some improvements to some websites.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped Nevada and the nation, some of the most important state websites, including those containing information and services that are critical to all Nevadans during the crisis, remain completely or partially inaccessible.
In April, I asked the national president of our organization, Mark Riccobono, to write to Gov. Steve Sisolak and other state officials — including Linda DeSantis, state web development manager — to express the need for urgent action. Riccobono’s letter pointed to specific examples of inaccessible websites, including the Nevada HealthLink website (the official state healthcare marketplace) and the site where Nevadans apply for unemployment benefits — both obviously of high importance during the pandemic. Riccobono also offered to work with the state to remedy these issues. Our national organization has technology experts on staff who can work directly with state web developers and contractors or refer them to consultants and developers who can help.
To date, however, we have heard only from Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley. While the relationship we have developed with him has been productive, there is still no movement on a global plan to fix all of the affected state websites. This failure to act has probably already resulted in irreversible harm to the physical and economic well-being of many blind Nevadans, and continued inattention to the problem will make matters even worse.
When we raise issues of accessibility, blind people are sometimes told that we should simply get someone to help us navigate the websites and input the required information. While this might be fine for some blind people, others live alone and can’t find or hire a person to help, even assuming they are willing to share with a third party some of the extremely personal and private information that one must divulge in order to access some state services. More to the point, the antidiscrimination provisions of federal law say that blind people shouldn’t have to rely on someone else to access the same programs and services that everyone else can access easily. It’s a matter of basic equality.
Nevada officials have known for at least two years that improvements must be made to state websites, and the National Federation of the Blind of Nevada has been more than patient given that the state is in violation of federal law. We do not seek confrontation and greatly prefer collaboration, but we will not wait indefinitely for what we are legally entitled to have.
I am asking state officials to urgently meet with us to develop a plan to remediate the state websites that are still inaccessible, and appealing to the public to join with blind Nevadans to urge state officials to do what they are morally and legally required to do.
Failing that, the only remedy may be costly litigation, unnecessarily placing further strain on Nevada taxpayers because the state failed to follow the law and appropriately protect the rights of its blind residents. Rather than finding itself in a legal battle that it will most likely lose, we urge the state to come to the table immediately and work with us to create a technology infrastructure that equally serves all Nevadans, including the blind and others with disabilities.