State vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies, either serving a general population of persons with disabilities or specifically for persons who are blind, need to communicate with potential consumers and the public about a variety of topics, including their mission, available services, eligibility requirements, office locations, and outcomes. These agencies must locate consumers to serve, employers to hire their consumers, and vendors to provide services. In addition, these agencies must communicate with citizens to whom VR is accountable. Traditionally, communication was accomplished through print and Braille materials, public service announcements, face-to-face meetings, audio or video tapes and other media.
With the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, state VR agencies have developed webpages as another medium of communication. The types of information conveyed and the purposes of communication have not changed, but the medium has and this in turn has changed the process of governance. The change is often referred to as e-government, or the use of information technologies to empower citizens and others with information, provide services and conduct business (West, 2000; World Bank Group, 2006). The first level of e-government service delivery is provision of one-way communication to display information about the agency (Elmagarmid & McIver Jr., 2001). With the continued emphasis on e-government, the citizen's first interface with the agency is often through the homepage of its website.
State VR agencies must provide accessible information for citizens, primarily persons with disabilities. Billingsley, Knauss, and Oehlers (2002) have discussed the use of the Internet to inform and involve consumers; they noted that issues of website accessibility for people with disabilities "is becoming as important as architectural accessibility" (p. 66). In the early days of the Internet, screen reading programs for persons who were blind and other accessibility software for persons with disabilities worked fairly well; however, with the rapid growth in web development software there has come an increase in difficulty accessing websites (US Department of Justice, 2000).
Most of the studies of website accessibility used an on-line evaluation tool, Bobby, to detect violations of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The current owner of Bobby, Watchfire now provides WebXACT as the evaluative tool and uses the Bobby approval logos to indicate compliance (Center for Applied Special Technology, 2006). The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international organization that develops standards for the Web and Web related technologies, including accessibility, uses similar logos (World Wide Web Consortium, 2007).
The two principles that guide Web accessibility criteria are these: websites should be able to transform gracefully across various devices, e.g., from computer screen to screen reading assistive technology, and they should be understandable and navigable. Based on these two principles, W3C recommends 14 general guidelines with 66 associated specific checkpoints to evaluate a website's level of accessibility. The W3C published the first version of the WCAG in 1999 (World Wide Web Consortium, 1999b).
Watchfire Bobby built their evaluation algorithms based on the WCAG checkpoints stipulated by W3C and the 16 technical rules defined by section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended 1998) (29 U.S.C. 794d). Section 508 requires that Federal employees or members of the general public who have a disability and seek information or service from any Federal agency should have comparable access to the information or service to that of persons without disabilities. The [section] 1194.22 Web-based intranet and internet information and applications clearly define the technical standards that Federal agencies need to consider when a Web information application is procured or developed. …