Web Accessibility Lessons from Whitehouse.gov

When the Biden administration took office on January, 20th 2021, Americans expected lots of change. However, one area of significant change that many Americans may have not considered is the White House website. Let’s take a look at how the Biden-Harris Administration made whitehouse.gov a top priority as a symbol of Joe Biden’s promise to be a “president for all Americans.”

Web Accessibility Statement

For the new administration, creating a website for all Americans meant that accessibility had to be prioritized. They showed their commitment right out of the gate by publishing an accessibility statement, promising to make the site as accessible as possible while also asking for comments and critiques to continually improve. This statement is a nice call to action, but does the website measure up to the expectations it sets?

Let’s take a look at some of the significant changes the new administration has already put in place to make the site more accessible.

Toggle Switches

Visitors can now customize their site experience immediately upon entering the site with a toggle switch placed on the screen’s left-hand side. This toggle allows users to choose how they want to experience the site; high contrast mode and/or larger font size. 

High Contrast Mode

The website allows users to select ‘high contrast mode.’ This changes the display to have bright text on a dark background instead of the other way around, allowing the text to have higher contrast from the background. It’s meant to help anyone who would have trouble reading or looking at a bright white screen with black text. Take a look at my post on color contrast to understand why contrast is so important for accessibility.

Large Font Toggle 

Not surprisingly, the large font toggle allows users to make the text on the screen significantly larger, helping those who have vision problems to read the text better while still preserving the page’s layout. 

Spanish Translation Content

The Trump administration took down all Spanish-related content from the White House site back in 2017, even though Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the United States. 

However, the new whitehouse.gov website reinstated a Spanish language section, complete with hreflang tags to help search engines understand the relationships between English and Spanish content. Interestingly, the tags are only targeting Spanish speakers in Mexico, rather than using “es – US” to target Spanish speakers in the United States.

It’s hard to know whether or not this was intentional, but considering that people of Mexican origin are the largest Hispanic subgroup in the U.S., this might be deliberate. 

Alt Text

Alt text, the text description of images, is essential for users who depend on screen readers. If no alt text is provided, then a screen reader would only be able to say “IMAGE” or perhaps provide a file name. 

Whitehouse.gov does a pretty good job of providing alt text, with only eight images missing descriptions. However, the goal should always be 100%. 

Pronouns on Contact Forms

The new administration has also added inclusive pronoun dropdowns to its contact forms, signaling its support of the LGBTQ community. Additionally, prefix options have been updated to include the gender-neutral Mx, for those who don’t want to be identified by gender. 

While this can seem like a minor detail, this change alone has a massive impact on the LGBTQ community, where “1 in 4 LGBTQ youth uses pronouns or pronoun combinations that fall outside of the binary construction of gender.”

As time moves on, whitehouse.gov will hopefully become one of the most accessible sites online. Not even a month into their term, the Biden team has clearly put a lot of thought into an accessible, streamlined website accessible to all Americans. While there’s more to be done, there’s a lot to be happy about. 

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