VPAT 101: An Accessibility Resume for Your Product

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Process, Tech
If you work in the accessibility space, chances are you've heard of a VPAT. Let us walk you through how it's used to evaluate accessibility conformance for your product.

It’s that time of year again – if you’re a product owner or cater to clients with a keen eye on their accessible digital presence, chances are you’re gearing up to deliver a compliance report in the form of a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template). In short, this report is for evaluating the conformance of your current product/site and is used to generate a roadmap for success going into the new year. The VPAT is your accessibility resume. It evaluates your product’s compliance level at a point in time, lending itself to immeasurable benefits to both your internal teams, your userbase, and your customers (when applicable). To understand how they’re used, it’s best to start with why they were created in the first place.

A Brief History

The VPAT format found its humble beginnings back in 1998 when the U.S. government amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to include Section 508 and started to ask the hard questions during their procurement process about accessibility conformance of what they were signing up for. The change required federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The law (29 U.S.C § 794 (d)) applies to all federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others¹.

Once the law was established and the science behind accessible builds started to evolve naturally over the proceeding years, a hole in the reporting side of section 508 started to emerge. Swooping in like a hero in the night, the ITI (Information Technology Industry Council) partnered with the U.S. Government to develop the VPAT format. Very long story short, the VPAT format provided vendors in the public sector a standardized way to report on the conformance of their products. The format led to a much easier apples-to-apples comparison during the vendor selection process across all procurement offices for all government agencies—one format to rule them all if you will.

The Adoption of WCAG

Although there have been shifts to the report’s fundamental layout, easily the most notable was the harmonization of reporting standards within the VPAT from 508 to the WCAG standards. This was huge – this shifted the reputation and focus of the VPAT from a strictly government/public sector focus to a tool that would go on to be the standard for the private sector as well. This created a cascade effect on the accessibility industry, where private industry could no longer ignore the subject. In-house development teams and procurement officers now had an easy and accessible (no pun intended) format to deliver accessibility conformance reports focusing on the WCAG standard.

Keeping Up with the Times

Once the harmonization to WCAG was complete, the challenge then quickly became how future-proof this format can be as technology – and more importantly, international policy – evolved rapidly over time. ITI’s answer came in the form of a few new versions of the VPAT format, bringing the VPAT template to a grand total of 4 different standard reporting options:

  1. 508 Edition – original standard required by U.S. public sector
  2. EU Edition – consists of conformance standards specific to the EU (European Union) and Australia
  3. WCAG Edition – the gold standard for accessibility reporting internationally (universal standards)
  4. International Edition – All of the above

The great thing about the VPAT format is that It’s supported by the credibility of ITI and their proven commitment to the continued improvement of the VPAT product itself.

Bonus: Leveraging the Report to Create a Roadmap

The VPAT is the undisputed pound-for-pound champion for standardized accessibility compliance reporting, but the VPAT isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. As you can read about in one of my other posts, there will be times that your product gets a score of “Partially Supports”, or even “Does Not Support”. The objective of any organization in the technology space is continuous and relentless improvement, and the VPAT is simply a tool to guide those efforts.

The delivery of a VPAT should always be supplemented with a detailed roadmap for remediation of anything in the report that doesn’t have a passing grade of Supports. This can be broken out in phases, by core functionality, by user persona type, or whatever way most suits your product specifically. Most importantly, this effort for remediation should have clear and succinct details on deliverables, as well as a timeline for remediation broken out into Critical, Important, and `nice to have` buckets.

Scenario: Giving You a Competitive Advantage

Imagine you’re in the procurement process seeking a vendor to integrate into your products or services. You have two vendors you are evaluating (vendor A and vendor B). On one hand, you have Steven from vendor A who sells you their product. When you ask about how they bake accessibility into their product, Ronnie is able to talk the talk and give you the reassurance that it is compliant, and we’ll work with you to meet your accessibility needs. On the other hand, you have Laura from vendor B, who sells a basically identical product, says all the right things when prompted on the call about accessibility. But after the call, points you to a public-facing page on their website where they have VPAT documents for their products for the past four years readily available for your review. Granted, more goes into the selection process than just accessibility, but this scenario is a landslide victory for Laura and the lovely folks at Vendor B.

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