VPAT, TL;DR Version

Here’s the super-long, trying-to-be-as-thorough-as-I-can version of the shorter blog post about VPATs.

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.

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.

There are times when a VPAT is required, such as when a vendor wishes to do business with a government agency. In most cases, the government agency will require a VPAT (or the similar GPAT) as part of the purchasing decision-making process. In that sense, the VPAT would not be voluntary if the vendor wants to win that contract.

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.”

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.

For example, Patricia F 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.

What if They Don’t Have a VPAT?

This all gets a bit trickier when an educational institution wants to make use of a free or low-cost technology where 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.

Another WAMOE example comes from Michael M who searched for a popular web-based alternative slideware program; something that creates a non-linear presentation without using slides. Michael reported back that 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.

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.

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 will 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. 

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.

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 a) that the person using the software to create captions can do so with full accessibility controls, if needed, and b) 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: 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.

Karen Sorensen, formerly the Online Accessibility Advocate for Portland Community College (PCC) shares the following about how her college conducted accessibility testing:

“Disability Services hired two graduate students who use screen readers extensively, to do screen reader testing with us. We can’t possibly do an in depth, definitive test on the accessibility of each product, but we try to test what a student in the course will need to access. We hope to hire a keyboard only tester but currently Supada, the Alt Media Specialist for Distance Education and I do the keyboard only testing, magnification tests and color contrast testing on 3rd party products used in online courses.”

Functional Accessibility Testing of the Product

Don’t trust everything you read

Verify accessibility claims with actual end user testing.

In addition to reviewing the VPAT and asking for clarification from the product team on areas that the VPAT says “Supports with Exceptions” or “Does not Support”, conduct your own usability tests (preferably with assistive technology users) to verify areas the VPAT claims the product “Supports” are actually usable by an experienced assistive technology (AT) end user.

Do Your Own Accessibility Testing

Some commonly-used testing tools:

  • For screen reader testing, start with JAWS in various common browsers for the PC. If you run into a barrier, try NVDA with Firefox and/or VoiceOver with Safari. If you still can’t access the content, mark it as inaccessible unless the product’s company provides us with specific screen reader settings.
  • A good tool to check for color contrast issues is the Colour Contrast Analyzer from the Paciello Group. Their results are based on WCAG 2.0 AA settings.
  • Keyboard accessibility testing can be done using the Tab, Space, Enter and Arrow keys and common Windows keyboard commands using Sticky Keys.
    • Also consider using Greg Kraus’s Web Evaluation Tools Bookmarklet to force show visual focus, making it easier to see where the focus is.
    • The tool can be used for a lot more than that too, so check it out!
  • Magnification testing can be done with Ctrl+ (Cmd+ on a Mac)  in the browser. Some browsers will show you a percentage of Zoom. Test usability at 200% which is the WCAG 2.0 standard.
  • Much more info available at Section 508: ICT Testing Baseline for Web

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.

Additional Resources:

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
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