At its core, a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT™) is a template created by the US Federal government used to assess how well digital content conforms to Section 508 requirements. Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits the Federal government office or vendor of the Federal government from discriminating on the basis of a disability. A VPAT in it of itself is just a tool; organizations use the VPAT to evaluate and credibly prove their content is accessible.
Do I need a VPAT?
That depends. Does your organization want to conduct business with the Federal government or any vendor they use? If the answer is yes, then, yes, you need a VPAT. Even if your organization is not inclined to conduct business with the Federal government or one of its vendors, a VPAT is still a very useful resource.
Why is a VPAT useful?
Because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not include explicit criteria pertaining to digital accessibility, there is ambiguity when attempting to clearly differentiate “accessible” and “inaccessible” digital content. Even though the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are universally accepted as the de facto guidelines for digital accessibility, many of the criteria are not cut-and-dry. Physical ADA standards (such as the number of accessible parking spaces or elevators in a building) are far more defined.
Understandably, organizations looking to provide irrefutable evidence that their digital content is accessible are often frustrated by this lack of clarity. This is where a VPAT can be useful to an organization, even one that is not interested in conducting business with the Federal government.
A VPAT provides a clearly defined standard against which any organization can measure its accessibility. Section 508 requirements map to WCAG, and by the nature of the officiality of the VPAT itself, organizations that can show they conform to the Section 508 requirements are seen as more credibly accessible.
Not only that, but in undergoing the process to fill out the VPAT, firms frequently unearth accessibility failures that had previously gone unaddressed. If they remediate these errors, they will emerge with better, more accessible content. Talk about a win-win situation!
What are potential disadvantages of a VPAT?
Well, for one, they are quite complicated. Organizations that do not possess substantial accessibility knowledge will be at a disadvantage, as it’s not easy to pick up this type of in-depth subject matter expertise on the fly. Firms often rely on accessibility consultancies like TPGi to fill out a VPAT for them. (Nevertheless, if your company is keen to try to do it in-house you can download the official VPAT template from the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) website.)
In terms of ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities, a VPAT is only as good as the person reviewing it and the level of candor and transparency of the vendor that completes it. Despite its best efforts to be precise, a VPAT still offers firms the ability to remain somewhat ambiguous about accessibility failures. An organization could be less than wholly forthright and still complete a VPAT that makes their product look highly accessible.
Furthermore, a purchaser looking to work with the vendor may or may not have the motivation to closely investigate whether or not an organization’s VPAT claims are legitimate. If they are willing to take it at face value, they have to trust that a vendor has done their due diligence in terms of conformance.
Moreover, even a purchaser with the best of intentions needs to understand how to interpret a VPAT. It’s more than just a series of checkboxes that are easy to comprehend. If a purchaser has insufficient digital accessibility knowledge, they may be unable to effectively evaluate the vendor’s accessibility – even with a VPAT.
Despite its flaws, a VPAT can be a valuable resource for any organization, regardless of its clientele. If your company needs assistance in filling out a VPAT, the experts at TPGi will be happy to help! Contact us today.