A VPAT, or Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, is a document that allows your company or organization to provide a comprehensive analysis of your conformance to accessibility standards set by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The documentation template outlining key accessibility requirements and providing a structure for the vendor to outline the level of compliance and give explanatory remarks. The VPAT, available through procurement offices, was created by the Information Technology Industry Council so that contracting officials and other buyers can more easily make preliminary assessments on information technology products and service offerings. It can be a critical component of the RFP process for any organization (private or government) where accessibility (and by extension Section 508 compliance) is a key concern.
In other words, the VPAT is highly relevant to anyone who is a provider of electronic and information technology (EIT) that can or will be used by federal workers. Section 508 mandates that any product or technology used by federal employees must be compliant. If your product is being used by anyone directly or indirectly federally funded, you are by extension federally funded and the regulations might apply to you. In other words, it is very possible, in fact likely, that your organization is losing business opportunities by not being Section 508 compliant, or by not providing a VPAT that properly outlines their compliance.
Because there are many organizations that make use of a VPAT to assess vendor solutions and services in the procurement process, it is important to keep in mind how these organizations make their assessments, and what makes a good VPAT.
Check Organizational Guidance
Many organizations use the default VPAT document, which can be downloaded from the ITIC’s website. A Word version of the default document can be found online through Microsoft Office Apps. However, it is important to look at the organization’s guidance for completing a VPAT to determine if any modifications have been made to the template, and whether additional information is requested that might be specific to the organization’s needs.
The template might also be modified if the organization is forward-thinking and has incorporated the guidance of W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to be compliant with the recent (January 2017) “refresh” of Section 508. This refresh incorporates WCAG 2.0 guidance and has resulted in efforts to update the current version of VPAT. The refresh is currently in effect, as of March 2017, but compliance is not mandatory until January 18, 2018.
Organizational guidance might also include terminology. In order to more easily assess your product, the purchasing entity might specify the language to be used in the VPAT. By tailoring your VPAT response to the organization’s requested wording, you ensure that the organization is able to make their assessment in a timely manner. It also shows that you are paying attention to the purchaser’s requirements, and not simply sending a pre-filled form to all of your clients.
As with an RFP, there is a tendency to want to minimize any deficiencies in your offering, even if you are actively working on them. The VPAT default template provides ample space to add remarks. These remarks can outline the steps you are taking to rectify the situation, as well as ensure that your organization is not held liable if there is contractual language stating that your VPAT has to be accurate or a legal recourse could be taken. Remember: If your product is NOT a good fit for the organization in question, and the company makes an ill-informed decision to purchase your product, upgrading your services to deliver what you promised could be more expensive than losing the sale.
Be Brief, But Thorough
The purchaser would rather take your VPAT at face value than perform a full evaluation of your product to get the information he or she needs. If you do not provide adequate details and remarks (such as what features exist and how they support the standard, or what features are missing and need to be addressed), the purchaser will likely put your VPAT at the bottom of the pile. On the other hand, the VPAT is meant to provide a quick initial assessment, and if it reads like “War and Peace,” this too is a problem. The purchaser will be looking for complete, concise information to make his/her assessment.