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Most VA Websites Still Inaccessible to Blind Vets

More than a year after waivers temporarily exempted the Department of Veterans Affairs from laws mandating its websites be accessible to blind and vision-impaired veterans, the agency is still lagging behind, veterans' advocates say.

"The fact of the matter [is] the electronic health records of the blind veterans, as well as the websites the blind veteran population must navigate, are still not ... compliant [with the Americans With Disabilities Act]," Blinded Veterans Association spokesman Glenn Minney said.

By law, federal agencies must provide disabled workers and the public access to electronic information and services comparable to that provided to non-disabled people.

For blind and visually impaired vets, websites would need to accommodate screen readers and refreshable Braille displays or terminals used to read text output from a computer.

To meet these requirements, the VA would have to label all buttons, icons or graphics in a way that screen readers could understand and then interpret them for the user.

Under Section 508 of the ADA, federal agencies are supposed to ensure equal access to electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained or used in the federal environment, BVA National President Mark Cornell told a joint Senate-House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on March 6.

Cornell told lawmakers that his group "has repeatedly requested in its annual resolutions that VA information technology be fully compliant with Section 508."

"We appreciate the fact that both of these committees have requested VA briefings and required updates on the status of its efforts to comply," he said. "This problem of lack of compliance, however, has still not been fixed."

In a January 2013 memo, VA Deputy Chief Information Officer for Product Development Lorraine Landfried notified Roger Baker, the VA's assistant secretary for IT, that all VA Section 508 waivers expired as of Jan. 1, 2013, and that "all electronic and information technology must conform to the Section 508 standards."

The requirement extended to "grandfathered" technology, as well, she wrote, meaning systems developed prior to 2001.

She said VA sites that were under development would have to self-certify they are compliant, show a signed waiver and a plan for reaching compliancy. Alternatively, the websites would have to attain a valid exemption for the 508 requirement.

Tom Zampieri, director of government relations for the Blinded Veterans Association, said it appears the VA had only begun putting more people and resources toward meeting these requirements after a 2012 Justice Department report highlighted the failures of the VA to meet its obligations.

Even as the VA has increased the number of services available to veterans -- including those related to filing claims -- "the majority of them are not able to be accessed by blinded veterans," Zampieri said.

In a statement to Military.com, the VA said it has made real progress in making online services accessible to blind veterans.

"Since January 2013, VA has reduced its need for waivers by 90 percent. The increased use of enterprise tools and training has assisted with this effort. VA continues to make progress in meeting the Section 508 requirements," the VA's statement said.

The VA has been scanning its websites and improving them over the last two years, utilizing templates and standardized processes, VA officials said. The agency has improved access to the MyHealthEVet site by 95 percent.

The VA also said there are no expired waivers with respect to websites and neither websites nor content are exempted under Section 508.

In his testimony on March 6, Cornell told lawmakers that the 2012 Justice Department report found continuing problems with Section 508 implementation at the VA and elsewhere in the federal government.

The Blinded Veterans Association has grown increasingly frustrated with the VA over the past several years as the department has dragged its feet on supporting the Vision Center of Excellence.

The center, which is supposed to work in tandem with the Defense Department Vision Center of Excellence, has been in existence for more than four years but has never been fully staffed. Last summer, Veterans Health Administration Under Secretary Dr. Robert Petzel claimed to be unaware that his department had never filled four of the six positions in the center.

VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said last week that all but one position is now filled and interviews are underway for that job.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.Jordan@monster.com.

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