voluntary product accessibility template

Have you ever encountered content that made you spitting mad? Or at least decided not to go with a specific vendor? Just like you scan a clothing rack to see what would look great on you before looking for size, fabric, color choices, and cut, wouldn’t it be better if you or the government procurement people could do the same with technical or electronic products to ensure it is accessible to everyone?

Digital information should be readily and universally available. When an inaccessible technology diminishes or impacts a user’s ability to acquire and utilize digital information in any format(e.g., text, video,) it not only affects the user but the vendor simultaneously.

What is VPAT, and How does it Help Both Users and Vendors?

Per US Federal law, Section 508 mandates that any electronic products or products related to IT. Whenever these products either get created, purchased, used, or maintained by any federal agencies, they must be made accessible to individuals with disabilities except in the case that such efforts pose an undue burden.

Developed by the Information Technology Industry Council, Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, or VPAT, was created and adopted to make it easier for vendors to relay detailed product-related information to procurement staff at government agencies. Its purpose is to relay complex information regarding what level of compliance their product sticks to in terms of Technical, Functional Performance, and Documentation & Support requirements outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The checklist of a well-developed VPAT allows federal contracting and procurement officials to evaluate accessibility features of any commercial Information and Communication Technology (ICT) products and services during the procurement process.

It is critical to understand what is VPAT and what it isn’t.

What Not to Put in a VPAT?

It would be a grave mistake for a vendor to equate the VPAT document with a product brochure or a sales tool. It is not marketing fluff. It is federally mandated information, like technical specifications. Like you wouldn’t tell a client if your car runs on unleaded gas if it required jet fuel. That is essentially how clear and plainly worded a VPAT needs to be. Every feature and the presence and absence of it should be given complete, honest disclosure.

Knowledge regarding the product’s level of compliance should also be made crystal clear. In my experience, for vendors to be dishonest in painting a clear picture of what their product is in a VPAT is more likely to cause headaches than being honest. A decent website accessibility consultant will advise you that a VPAT should enlist all your product’s shortcomings.

Section 508 requires that the government purchase the most accessible product which meets their business needs. To the extent that even if the product is not compliant with all of the relevant 508 provisions government must procure the most accessible product.

Most of the staff at government agencies have seen enough VPATs and thoroughly understand the web accessibility standards 508 enlists. Any veering from it into marketing jargon and you’re more likely to increase their scrutiny of your product. By omitting details about your product or filling it with marketing speak, you would incur their inexhaustible scrutiny. Therefore to make a procurement go smoothly, it is essential to provide a VPAT with clear, complete, and unbiased information.

How is a VPAT Structured?

The VPAT is composed of a series of tables. Each table has three columns. The Summary Table had details of the vendor’s declaration related to conformance with Section 508 Standards of the United States Rehabilitation Act.

In the first column of the above-mentioned ‘Summary Table,’ eight accessibility criteria are detailed relating to subparts B and C of the 508 Standards. The second column provides details of any supporting features that help the product or service conform to the individual criterion. And finally, the third column contains remarks and explanations that the vendor would like to make to explain things further.

The later tables detail further information regarding how their product meets each of the eight criteria unless any of the criteria is deemed “Not Applicable.” An example would be when the fourth criterion, “Video and Multi-media Products,” would be marked “Not Applicable” if the product or service offered doesn’t use video or multi-media. In this case, a detailed table for that criterion would be marked “Not Applicable.”. If the product does have features apply, then there will be a supporting table of detail for that item to details accessibility features.

Recommendation for Developing a Good VPAT

If you wish to be qualified as an EIT/ICT products or services provider for the Federal government or public service-related entities, it is essential that you develop an exhaustive list of details why the products offered comply with Section 508. All Section 508 requirements that your product complies with must be included in a clear, complete, and informative VPAT document. Such a document can go a long way to ensure a trouble-free purchase of your product. The federal or public entity procurement process is complicated enough without the added egregious pressure of an incomplete or uninformative VPAT. If you do not have knowledgeable accessibility to the process of preparing a VPA, your best bet would be to hire a skilled website accessibility consultant to make the VPAT for you.

The more detailed, honest, and well-vetted your VPAT will be, the easier it will be to go through a procurement process without the anxiety of a novice. So, mind your Ps and Qs, prepare a thorough VPAT document, and plunge in.

In conclusion, VPAT provides the federal procurement experts with detailed information about features your product has and how it helps make content consumption easier for all.

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