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Ten congressional lawmakers wrote a letter Monday, June 6, 2022, to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough urging the agency to improve its websites to make them more accessible to people with disabilities.

Ten congressional lawmakers wrote a letter Monday, June 6, 2022, to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough urging the agency to improve its websites to make them more accessible to people with disabilities. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Ten lawmakers wrote a letter Monday to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough urging the agency to improve its websites to make them more accessible to people with disabilities.

“This lack of compliance is a problem for the one-quarter of all veterans with a service-connected disability, as well as the 26% 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," the lawmakers wrote in the letter dated June 6. "Furthermore, 46% of our nation's roughly 19 million veterans are 65 years or older; as a group, older veterans experience higher rates of disabilities than the general population.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Tim Scott, R-S.C., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif., Mike Bost, R-Ill., Elaine Luria, D-Va., Troy Nehls, R-Texas, Frank Mrvan, D-Ind., and Matthew Rosendale, R-Mont.

"VA has received the letter regarding 508 accessibility and will connect directly with the members to address their concerns and questions," said Gary Kunich, a public affairs specialist at the VA.

In December 2020, the Department of Veterans Affairs Website Accessibility Act of 2019 was signed into law. The act ordered the VA to conduct a report on the accessibility of the agency's websites, attached files and web-based applications for people with disabilities.

The report was supposed to identify which sites, files and applications were not accessible and were not compliant with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A plan on how the VA would address and improve accessibility was also required.

Section 508 establishes guidelines for technology accessibility and requires that any information and communication technology that the federal government utilizes, obtains, develops or manages must allow its employees or the public with disabilities access to its information and data.

The VA submitted the report in September, said Shoshana Marin, deputy press secretary for Casey.

The VA’s report did not provide a timeline on when the study was conducted. However, the report found 41 of the VA's 462 internet sites, and 22 of its 350 intranet sites, were in full accordance with section 508. The report also included a list of internet sites and their levels of conformance. Eleven of the internet sites and more than 70 of the intranet sites had a conformance rate of zero.

While the VA's Veteran Health Administration was the only department to provide detailed timelines for remediation, the Veterans Benefits and National Cemetery administrations' submissions were less than a page long and did not provide any remediation plans, according to the letter.

Donald Overton, executive director of the Blinded Veterans Association, expressed concern and frustration after reviewing the VA's report.

“The inaccessibility of certain VA websites and applications has negatively impacted the mental well-being of disabled veterans and forced their reliance on outside help to simply access medical information,” Overton said. “We advocate for restored independence for our disabled veterans, yet VA is presenting one of the greatest barriers to restoring that independence by continually ignoring accessibility standards. We hope the bipartisan congressional letter delivered to VA Secretary McDonough will serve to finally begin eliminating those barriers”

The lawmakers requested the VA resubmit a revised report and include information left out in the original, such as how the VA will remediate the benefits and national cemetery administrations’ websites and how it will engage with groups from various classes of disabilities and be more inclusive.

The lawmakers also questioned the VA seeking waivers from Section 508 for some of its ongoing projects, including the new electronic health record system. They requested an outline for the VA's process on the need for and approving a waiver.

“Given the enormous task facing the VA, the lack of substantive remediation plans and the uneven progress toward compliance spanning multiple presidential administrations, we seek information about the department’s plans to improve its Section 508 compliance,” the letter reads. “We ask that you continue to provide our offices with briefings from the appropriate VA offices beginning in June.”

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Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.
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