This post adapted from the article, “VPAT 2.X, The Evolution of the Accessibility Conformance Report,” originally published in the November 2019 issue of Mealey’s™ Litigation Report: Cyber Tech & E-Commerce. Mealey’s is a subscription-based information provider and a division of LexisNexis. In subsequent weeks we will cover variations across the four VPAT versions explored in the full article. This post provides an overview of the goals of the VPAT process and consistent elements across all versions in the most recent updates.
Copyright © 2019 by Hiram Kuykendall. Any commentary or opinions do not reflect the opinions of Microassist or LexisNexis, Mealey’s.
Both public and private entities are now held accountable for the accessibility of all components and services that comprise an entity’s “product.” Historically, there was a misconception that technology not directly under control of the purchaser provided some degree of protection. Recent actions under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 have shown that a product owner is responsible for ultimate accessibility of the entire application to include third-party components that essential to the function of the overall product. This includes components directly embedded into the core product and processes linked to from the core product. The key concept is that the accessibility of all features and functions that are essential to the operation of a “product” are the responsibility of the product owner to include the procurement of accessible third-party technologies.
This need for accessible procurement processes is clearly visible in one of the first major Title III accessibility lawsuits to be litigated, Gil v. Winn-Dixie. In the Winn-Dixie case, the claimant explicitly cited the use of multiple products in the construction of a web-based eCommerce product. The court, in turn, found for the defendant and explicitly made provision for the inclusion of all essential in-process products and services that comprise the overall product.
|Excerpts from Juan Carlos Gil, Plaintiff v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., Defendant,|
Civil Action No. 16-23020-Civ-Scola
|Findings of Fact|
|“There are 6 different third parties, including Google and American Express, who interface with Winn-Dixie’s website, so Winn-Dixie needs to make sure that those third parties also make sure that their websites are accessible. Winn-Dixie intends to implement the modification to its website by getting everyone, including the third- party vendors, on board.”|
|Conclusions of Law|
|The factual findings demonstrate that Winn-Dixie’s website is inaccessible to visually impaired individuals who must use screen reader software. Therefore, Winn-Dixie has violated the ADA because the inaccessibility of its website has denied Gil the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that Winn-Dixie offers to its sighted customers.|
|Terms of Injunction (Term 4)|
|No later than __(date)__________, shall require any third party vendors who participate on its website to be fully accessible to the disabled by conforming with WCAG 2.0 criteria.|
In short, the procurement of accessible products and services is a risk that can no longer be ignored by either public or private entities. This need has led to an increased interest in obtaining accessibility attestations from prospective vendors before procuring a product or service. One of the oldest accessibility conformance reporting tools is the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). While the VPAT has historically been a procurement vehicle for federal agencies under Section 508, other public sector entities and private sector organizations have seen the value in leveraging this tool as a means of determining the degree of third-party product accessibility. The remainder of this article will review the most recent changes to the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template.
On October 4, 2017, the Information Technology Council (ITI)1 released a 2.0 update to the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template® (VPAT®). Since that time, there have been several updates. Each update seeks to create an optimized reporting experience for a particular industry. These updates have evolved the VPAT template in four versions3:
- VPAT 2.3 508: Revised Section 508 standards – the U.S. Federal accessibility standard
- VPAT 2.3 EU: EN 301 549 – the European Union’s “Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe”
- VPAT 2.3 WCAG: WCAG 2.1 or ISO/IEC 40500 – W3C/WAI’s recently updated Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
- VPAT 2.3 INT: Incorporate all three of the above standards
The Information Technology Council (ITI) is a Washington D.C. based trade association that represents companies from the information and communications technology (ICT) industry. They have a broad focus on a variety of information and communication technology (ICT) policy2 that includes accessibility.
While the template may have evolved since version 1.X, the goals of a VPAT remain the same:
- Facilitate Conversations – A VPAT provides a structured document to facilitate conversations between a purchaser and vendor. Most products have some degree of accessibility failures. The VPAT allows the vendor to note these failures and their severity. Further, savvy vendors will also add alternative methods of access (accommodations) as part of their response. Purchasers, in turn, can report these shortcomings to the internal requesting customer. The internal customer can then take one of three actions: Propose their own accommodations; Request the vendor to propose a solution to include remediation prior or post purchase; Reject the product as not suitable.
- Reduce Procurement Time – Ensuring that a product is accessible is a requirement of federal and state laws. Purchasers who receive a well documented VPAT can greatly reduce the procurement cycle time. This time savings can come in the form of fewer question and answer exchanges and purchasers may be able to forgo gathering other forms of credible evidence such as manual testing.
Consistent Sections Across Template Versions
Each of the four versions has preserved key elements of the original VPAT 2.0. Each template contains an instruction section at the top template that includes guidance and references. When applicable, best practices are included in the sections below.
Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR)
All completed versions of the VPAT 2.x templates are called Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR). This is to make the distinction between a vendor’s attestation of a product or service’s accessibility and the base template.
Name of Product/Version:
Specificity is a key element of an Accessibility Conformance Report. Knowledgeable purchasers will compare the product name and version to that proposed by the vendor. Frequently, vendors will submit an ACR for a different product version or product.
Frequently this section will include a product description and may include model numbers for certain types of ICT. For example, phone systems may include specific model numbers.
The report date is the completion date of the ACR. Savvy purchasers will use the report date as an indicator of the vendor’s commitment to accessibility and the reliability of the attestation. For example, if a report date is two years old, the vendor can expect a savvy purchaser to question if any major updates have been completed within the last two years. This traps the vendor into either acknowledging that the ACR has not been kept current and is therefore unreliable or that their product has not changed.
To minimize the procurement cycle time, the ACR asks the vendor to provide contact information. This can either be a closely monitored email, phone number or other means of communication. It is in the vendor’s best interest that this contact method is closely monitored and not tied to an individual. For example, a monitored, single-purpose email address (accessibility@….com, vpat@….com) would be preferable to that of an individual who may leave.
As the name implies, the notes field allows the vendor to communicate anything pertinent to the ACR. One key provision would be the documentation of the conformance levels that deviate from the standard definitions: Supports, Partially Supports, Does Not Support, Not Applicable, Not Evaluated. The instructions provide the following additional guidance:
- Additional information about the product version that the document references
- Any revisions to the document
- Links to any related documents
- Additional information describing the product
- Additional information about what the document does or does not cover
- Information suggested by the WCAG 2.0 Conformance Claim, at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/#conformance-claims
- Information needed to satisfy ISO/IEC 17050-1:2004, Supplier’s Declaration of Conformity
Evaluation Methods Used:
One of the most significant upgrades to the VPAT 2.X template is the inclusion of evaluation methods used. The VPAT instructions provide the following suggestions:
- Testing is based on general product knowledge
- Similar to another evaluated product
- Testing with assistive technologies
- Published test method (provide name, publisher, URL link)
- Vendor proprietary test method
- Other test method
Savvy purchasers are now looking for three key elements in the evaluation method used to boost confidence in an ACR’s reliability.
- Third-Party Audit: Having a product audited and ACR created by a knowledgeable third party lends a great deal of credibility to the reliability of the ACR. This is optional and not required.
- Testing Methodology: In short, purchasers are looking for testing methodologies that include references to automated and manual testing. Automated testing is the use of tools that scan a product for accessibility issues. Generally, automated testing tools catch between 30% – 40% of technical errors. Manual testing incorporates the use of the actual assistive technologies used by people with disabilities. For example, a purchaser would have a higher degree of confidence in the ACR attestation if testing incorporated the use of screen readers and screen magnifiers in accessibility testing.Screen Reader – Assistive technology that can audibly render visual content to the blind and visually impaired.
Magnifiers – As the name implies, magnifiers expand a region of the screen for better perception by people with low vision.
- Audit Scope: The expense to fully audit a product may exceed what a vendor can bear. As such, some vendors may elect to sample audit key workflows and assets. A vendor should disclose the scope for anything less than a full product audit.
Legal Disclaimer (Company)
And finally, each template has a place holder for legal disclaimers. Generally, an organization will leave this section blank unless they have specific concerns. Risk-averse companies will frequently include statements that include language that addresses:
- Informational Purpose – The document is for informational purposes and represents the current state of the product as of the date of publication
- Best Effort – The VPAT may contain errors or omissions.
- Future State – Future issues may arise after the date of publication
- Warranty – The VPAT does not override any contractual warranties or contain implied warranties.
Each of these elements is consistent across VPAT versions and have consistent instructions.
Note: Download the full article for tables and examples of variations across each VPAT version (Accessible PDF format).
Read the next post in the series where Hiram outlines the elements of the VPAT 2.3 WCAG Edition.
About the author
Hiram Kuykendall is the chief technology officer for Microassist, an Austin, Texas-based learning, development, and accessibility consulting firm. He has more than 22 years of experience in custom application development and over 12 years of accessibility remediation for custom application development, eLearning, and instructor-led training. In addition, Hiram advocates through public speaking and volunteer work specifically focused on the technical aspects of web accessibility. Hiram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Accessibility Solutions
VPAT Evaluation and Authoring Services: The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template®, or VPAT®, is a tool provided by the accessibility policy and standard organization, ITI. The VPAT is used to document how well a product conforms with Section 508 accessibility standards. Many federal, state, and local government and institutions of higher education use or are required to use a VPAT to assess commercial IT products and services with features that support accessibility.
On June 5, 2018 the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released an incremental 2.1 update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Hiram Kuykendall explores how the 2.1 update offers improved guidelines in the areas of low vision, cognition, and mobile devices.
Introducing VPAT 2.0, the More Stringent Accessibility Reporting Tool Required for Government IT Procurement
A look back at takeaways at the introduction of tighter accessibility reporting requirements for government IT procurements – and how VPAT 2.0 set the stage to impact vendors, purchasers and people with disabilities.