What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?

Post #2 in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

This is a greatly shortened version of the full post. Check out the TL;DR version to see it all.

In this installment, we’ll take a look at a somewhat technical, and often over-looked aspect of using technology and software in education. Often-overlooked unless you are an IT professional or an employee working in a purchasing office.

Check the Accessibility Concerns of your Educational Software

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 Section 508 Accessibility Standards. Since it is voluntary, not all companies will 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.

How to Find a VPAT

In the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators (WAMOE), we asked the students (who were 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 content creation or similar 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. This simple web search would often bear fruit very easily, with an obvious search result that would lead to the desired document. However, there were many times when the search brought back confusing results or no helpful information at all.

What if They Don’t Have a VPAT?

Unless you can be assured that the recommended technology will be accessible to all students, it is a good idea to provide an alternative assignment that can be used by those who cannot make use of the primary technology that has been assigned.

What Can You Learn from a VPAT?

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.

VPAT Example – 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 non­text 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.

In an educational context, this boils down to the following: a) is the technology accessible to the instructor or student who needs to create educational content, and b) is the output of the technology accessible to users/viewers of said output?

You’ve Found a VPAT, Now What?

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.

More info in TL;DR

Yikes, it’s Inaccessible. Now what?

Okay, so now you’ve reviewed the VPAT and completed functional testing and found the product to have accessibility barriers that cannot be accommodated. Now what? Well either the product shouldn’t be used or you have to provide students with disabilities an accessible alternative when they encounter a barrier. These accessible alternatives should be figured out well in advance of a student with a disability enrolling.

Still need more about the VPAT? Check out the longer version of this post.

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text