Digital accessibility in software procurement: an introduction to VPATs

Here’s a situation: you want to submit your product for an RFP, but the customer requires proof of digital accessibility. You’re unsure how to establish that proof. Or, one of your biggest customers comes to you demanding that your product comply with their new global digital accessibility policy. You don’t have a way to demonstrate that compliance. Or even worse, some of your clients have received legal demand letters citing non-compliance with the ADA, and the demand letter specifically mentions your product. You have just encountered the newest gate to software procurement and sales: digital accessibility requirements. Due to the changing legal and regulatory environment, and evolving customer expectations in the software sales process, organizations must now deliver software products and platforms that are digitally accessible. You need a mechanism to demonstrate that your product is digitally accessible for RFPs, for customer retention, and for legal compliance. Enter the VPAT®, a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. A VPAT is highly beneficial in four key ways:

  • Fulfilling standard government procurement requirements
  • Providing proof of your product’s accessibility during the software sales process, or in response to an RFP
  • Demonstrating compliance with applicable digital accessibility policies and laws
  • Demonstrating your organization’s commitment to inclusion and accessibility

Let’s discuss the essentials including what VPATs are and how and when to complete one.

VPAT basics

A VPAT is a document that vendors fill out to represent how information and communication technology (ICT) products or services meet standards for accessibility. Once a VPAT is completed, it is technically referred to as an Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR), although the term VPAT is commonly used to refer to both the template and the completed report. Read more about the technical breakdown of VPATs and ACRs here. In the U.S., a VPAT is traditionally used to demonstrate your product meets compliance requirements under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Under Section 508, vendors who contract with government agencies must provide the VPAT for any information and communications technology (ICT) products or services to demonstrate they meet the standards. Because of the success with VPATs at the federal level, and an increasing global demand for accessible technology, private industry has also adopted its use in procurement. The VPAT is now used as the industry standard documentation for demonstrating software product accessibility to interested parties during the software sales process.

Why should you create a VPAT?

When your organization has committed to and implemented a robust digital accessibility practice, VPATs can demonstrate your product’s accessibility conformance, helping expand your business, retain contracts, improve your branding, and meet compliance requirements. With VPATs, companies know they can:

  1. Grow revenue. Brands are making diversity and inclusion, including digital accessibility, a business priority. According to a recent Forbes article, of the $80 billion spent globally on services and technologies to support design, up to $16 billion of that will be awarded based on a commitment to accessibility.
  2. Retain contracts. It’s not just about new business, proof of accessibility will impact whether you renew contracts. Particularly in the enterprise, more companies are adopting global digital accessibility policies that require the software products they use (internally or externally) demonstrate a commitment to digital accessibility. This conversation will happen with increasing frequency during renewal negotiations.
  3. Enhance brand. Diversity and inclusion is an increasingly important brand value for customers. In B2C scenarios, the consideration is with the end consumer, but even in B2B, brand reputation can be critical for software products as users demand more from the tools they’re using.
  4. Stand out. Accessibility compliance requires an on-going commitment that aligns with your product development process. Those organizations who undertake the effort will be able to take leadership positions in their industry.
  5. Comply with regulations and standards. A properly completed VPAT, outlining a product’s conformance with standards, can help address legal compliance concerns for both public and private entities and the procurement organizations that engage with them throughout the software sales process. With a VPAT, organizations can demonstrate that they meet requirements including:
      • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 mandates that any product or technology used by federal employees must be compliant, meaning software and digital products provided by government contractors must be compliant.
      • ADA and related laws. U.S. courts have overwhelmingly held that the ADA applies to digital properties including websites, mobile applications and the components displayed on them — putting private businesses at the center of digital accessibility lawsuits. And there are numerous state laws which prohibit disability-based discrimination by any business establishment.
      • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Many regulations and standards refer to WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. WCAG is widely considered the industry standard for digital accessibility and demonstrating conformance with WCAG

Completing a VPAT document

Completing a VPAT first requires manual evaluation and detailed documentation by digital accessibility experts. Because of its complexity, someone savvy to the WCAG standards and accessibility legal requirements should take the lead in completing a VPAT. (Here’s an example of a completed VPAT.

Beyond the VPAT

Product accessibility extends beyond just completing a VPAT. You may find your product includes accessibility barriers. If so, you need to prioritize fixing them, and you need to ensure new barriers aren’t introduced with future feature releases. Accessibility is ongoing, which is why we recommend you engage a full-service, deeply experienced partner like Level Access to help successfully integrate digital accessibility into your product life cycle. We take a holistic review of your product, conducting manual testing, including by people with disabilities who are native users of assistive technology. We deliver a completed VPAT, or ACR, and arm you with the tools and training to fix identified issues and ensure barriers are not introduced. We also provide tools to help you regularly monitor for any new accessibility bugs that may arise, aligning with your product sprints and feature releases. We understand the complexities in the procurement process and can help you meet RFP requirements. If you’re ready to get started, or want to request a demo of our end-to-end accessibility solution, engage with our team today.