When it comes to buying and implementing technology for your workplace, we all know that accessibility should be a key consideration. But with such a vast array of technology options available, how can you determine which products are the most accessible? Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs) can help! Last month, accessibility experts Ted Gies and Jay Nemchik from Elsevier joined PEAT to explain the valuable role of VPATs and the business case for making them a priority.

What are VPATs?

VPATs wereinvented in 2001 by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). They are documents meant to measure product conformance with the U.S. Section 508 Accessibility Standards. And while they were initially adopted for use in government procurement, private sector organizations can also use VPATs to identify the most 508-compliant solutions and make better informed purchasing decisions.

Use of VPATs seems to be on the rise. Last year, prospective customers asked Elsevier to complete more than 40 VPATs—a higher number than ever before in the company’s history. In fact, Elsevier responds to an average of three to four VPAT inquiries per week, and sometimes that many in a day. The speakers noted that colleges, in particular, are using VPATs more and more in their efforts to make their online courses and other technologies accessible.

VPATs can help ensure products are usable by everybody, including people with disabilities. What customers really want to know, Ted said, is whether the product they’re considering for purchase is compliant with Section 508 accessibility standards. This isn’t simply a yes or no answer; it’s a matrix of at least 38 checkpoints across a number of web pages that are measured.

However, all VPATs are not created equal. Ted warned of fraudulent or inaccurate VPATs and those that lack details for determining Section 508 compliance and meeting accessibility requirements. If it looks too good to be true, like passing all the checkpoints with no supporting explanations, be suspicious. Good VPATs will include those supporting details to give it some veracity.

Jay then walked participants through Elsevier’s approach to answering “the 508-compliance question.” Elsevier creates detailed VPATs that provide an overview of elements that pass or fail inspection for 508 compliance, evaluated by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standards. This table is easy to read and lets recipients see a product’s compliance level at a glance, along with where improvements are needed.

Best Practices for VPATs

The Elsevier team uses the acronym, “DUTCH” to make their best practices easy to remember.

  • Detailed. Fill out the remarks section clearly and with thorough explanations of passes and fails.
  • Unbiased. Use third-party experts to create a VPAT for a product.
  • Template. Using a template saves time and money and makes the document look presentable.
  • Contemporary. Update VPATs annually, especially for high earning, highly visible products.
  • Honest. Show examples of where a product does and does not pass compliance guidelines.

The Business Case for VPATs

For technology vendors, what makes a VPAT initiative worth it?  Ted and Jay laid out the business case for developing high-quality VPATs to share with prospective customers.

  • VPATs are a useful measure of Section 508 compliance that show customers upfront whether your products are accessible.
  • VPATs can help build your company’s reputation externally, showing customers that you care about accessibility.
  • VPATs can help build your company’s reputation internally as a center of excellence that attracts high-skilled employees.
  • VPATs facilitate business for the product you’re selling.
  • VPATs can save time and money if an internal accessibility team handles them.

What’s Next for VPATs

Ted wrapped up by outlining four big trends in VPATS—trends that are shaping how Elsevier will handle VPATs and other external factors.

  1. Customers today are following up more about VPATs and scrutinizing the details. This increase in communication is a great step forward in understanding accessibility policies.
  2. Section 508 sets the gold standard that is impacting a larger number of industries. Elsevier has long received requests from the U.S. federal government and colleges, but lately they’ve been fielding requests for VPATs from health care companies and even local police departments.
  3. The Section 508 refresh is now on the Federal Register, and it goes into effect January 18, 2018. In line with these new changes to the standards, ITI is updating its VPAT template. The VPAT 2.0 (Beta) document is now available online, and Section 508.gov is preparing a detailed toolkit to help everyone transition.

Note: One important change with the new VPAT 2.0 format is that ITI has clarified that the term “VPAT” refers specifically to the template. Going forward, completed reports are now referred to as Accessibility Conformance Reports (ACRs).

Learn more about VPATs and the important role they play in ensuring technology accessibility in workplaces by checking out archive of this PEAT Talk. And please share with us in the comments: does your company write VPATs for products? Or, has your company used a VPAT to guide technology purchasing decisions?