In this article, we'll look at a somewhat technical, and often over-looked aspect of using technology and software in education.
What is a VPAT
The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a tool that provides information about how well a vendor’s product or service conforms to the US Government Section 508 Accessibility Standards. Because it is usually voluntary, not all companies provide a VPAT for all of their products, but most companies that take an active interest in being inclusive with their product development will provide this information.
The idea of the VPAT was developed by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI). On their website, they state that the VPAT is “a tool that enhances industry-customer communications on ICT product and service conformance with relevant accessibility standards and guidelines.”
There are times when a VPAT is required, such as when a vendor wants to do business with a government agency. In most cases, the government agency requires a VPAT (or the similar GPAT) as part of the purchasing decision-making process. In that sense, the VPAT is not voluntary if the vendor wants to win that contract.
Sometimes, when an educational institution wants to use a free- or low-cost technology, there isn’t a rigorous buying process involved in the adoption. For example, a faculty member wants to require that all students create a presentation using some sort of free web-based tool. Does that free tool publish a VPAT that provides the information for the faculty member or course designer to ensure that all students will have equal access for completing the project? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Unless you can be assured that the recommended technology is accessible to all students, you should provide an alternative assignment that can be used by those who cannot use the primary technology that has been assigned.
How Hard Are They to Find?
In the Web Accessibility for Online Educators (WAMOE), we asked the student educators to search for a VPAT for software or hardware that they used in their online courses. It could be something that they used themselves for either work or personal purposes, or it could be something that they encouraged or required their students to use.
In most cases, WAMOE participants would do a web search using keywords of VPAT and the name of the tech product, which would return the VPAT as expected. However, there were many times when the search brought back confusing results or no helpful information at all.
For example, one participant searched for her favorite software for use with students, a site that allows anyone to create and share multimedia projects that can contain images, video, and voice in a type of threaded discussion. She found the VPAT very easily. What she learned from the VPAT was a bit of a mixed bag regarding how accessible the product is to students with disabilities. Another participant searched for a popular web-based alternative slideware program; something that creates a non-linear presentation without using slides. After an exhaustive search for their VPAT, he found that they didn’t have one. He did find a few discussion threads on the company website that indicated various accessibility issues that the company wasn’t addressing and didn’t intend to address anytime soon.
D2L is a leader in accessibility for online courses, and publicly shares VPAT information. You can find the D2L VPATs and other accessibility information on the Accessibility Standards Compliance page.
What does the VPAT Tell You?
The VPAT is a series of tables, each comprised of three columns. The Summary Table provides the vendor’s information related to conformance with Section 508 Standards of the United States Rehabilitation Act:
- Column one of the Summary Table contains eight accessibility criteria that are found in subparts B and C of the 508 Standards.
- Column two describes any supporting features in the product or service that helps conform to the individual criterion.
- Column three is for any remarks and explanations that the vendor would like to share.
The subsequent tables provide details about each of the eight criteria, unless the vendor indicates that the criterion is not applicable. For example, the fourth criterion is Video and Multi-media Products. If the product or service in question doesn’t use video or multi-media, then there is not be a detailed table for that criterion. If instead, the product does have features that are Web-based Internet information and applications, the second criterion on the list, then there would be a supporting table of detail for that item.
Examples of VPATs
VPAT Example #1 from a web conferencing solution
The detail table for Section 1194.22 Web-based Internet information and applications includes the following (excerpting criteria a, c, and g as examples):
Criteria: (a) A text equivalent for every non¬text element shall be provided (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content).
- Supporting Features: Supports with Exceptions
- Remarks and explanations: The product interface itself does not have any deficiencies requiring this, and authors are urged to do so should the need arise.
Criteria: (c) Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
- Supporting Features: Supports
- Remarks and explanations: All color contrasts comply with industry standard minimums.
Criteria: (g) Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
- Supporting Features: Not Applicable
- Remarks and explanations: The product does not contain any data tables.
Row (a) contains something that you’ll see quite frequently; the vendor saying that their product doesn’t have accessibility issues with a criterion, but content loaded by the end user just might. It’s always important to differentiate between product features and items added by the end user.
VPAT Example #2 from the VPAT for a cloud-based software as a service.
The detail table for Section 1194.21 Software Applications and Operating Systems includes the following (excerpting criteria f, h, and k as examples):
Criteria: (f) Textual information shall be provided through operating system functions for displaying text. The minimum information that shall be made available is text content, text input caret location, and text attributes.
- Supporting Features: Supports
- Remarks and explanations: HTML mark-up is used for the majority of system components. Equations in the Equation Editor are stored as MathML and output as HTML and CSS across all supported browsers.
Criteria: (h) When animation is displayed, the information shall be displayable in at least one non-animated presentation mode at the option of the user.
- Supporting Features: Supports
- Remarks and explanations: Essential animations (per WCAG 2 – 2.2.2) are provided to give feedback about loading progress. The title and alt text of the image updates while loading.
Criteria: (k) Software shall not use flashing or blinking text, objects, or other elements having a flash or blink frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.
- Supporting Features: Supports with exceptions
- Remarks and explanations: The user interface does not contain content that flickers. Exceptions: Users control their own content.
When reading a VPAT, it’s important to look for information that may impact both the technology user/creator as well as the output consumer, if both parties might be affected. For example, consider a technology that creates captions for videos. It is important that the person using the software to create captions can do so with full accessibility controls, if needed, and that the person watching the video is able to access the captions that have been created for their consumption.
In an educational context, this boils down to the following:
- Is the technology accessible to the instructor or student who needs to create educational content
- Is the output of the technology accessible to users/viewers of said output.
What to Do After the VPAT
At many colleges and universities, vendor VPATs are used as a first step to verify the accessibility of the technology (both software and hardware) that will be purchased or recommended for use by students and employees. This is only a first step, because it is a wise choice to do some additional end-user testing to verify the information contained in the VPAT. For example, consider a software product that indicates in the VPAT that text included in an object created by that software is readable by assistive technology such as a screen reader. It would be a good idea to test that yourself using the screen reading technology that is normally deployed at your organization.
You can do an internet search to find a VPAT for a technology that you use in education, or you can visit the following websites for information about accessibility benchmarks and obligations:
- The U.S. General Services Administration published the Section508.gov website. Info about how to Request Accessibility Information from Vendors & Contractors Section 508 IT Accessibility Blog
- The W3C Accessibility testing website contains lots of useful information about testing the web accessibility of a site or application.
Note: This topic contains consolidated information that previously existed in the What Value Can You Find in a VPAT? topic.