The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, or VPAT, was created by the Information Technology Industry Council as a means for vendors to supply information to government agencies regarding the level of compliance with the Technical, Functional Performance, and Documentation & Support requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This documentation format can help procuring officials in "making preliminary assessments" during the Market Research required by FAR Part 12. What typically happens is the vendor is asked to supply a VPAT document by the procuring official (thus making the VPAT not-so voluntary). In other words, it has sort of become the defacto standard way in which vendors communicate their products’ compliance with Section 508 provisions.
In the last few years, a different document called the Government Product Accessibility Template, or GPAT, has been pushed as a potential replacement for the VPAT. I won’t get into the politics and history of the GPAT/ VPAT thing. For purposes of this blog post, the GPAT document holds the same information and serves the same purpose. Throughout the rest of this post, I use the term "VPAT" as a reference to both documents because writing "VPAT/ GPAT" seems silly and redundant.
The Problem with VPATs
As a format, the VPAT is as good as any for providing high level information on the accessibility of a product. There’s not much to it but a list of each provision and places to enter comments. As such it should be relatively un-controversial. What is controversial, however, is that so many VPAT documents submitted by vendors tend to be so bad. To be blunt, VPAT submissions by vendors are often laughably bad and tend to be subject to ridicule in the 508 offices of government agencies. The bad information in them ranges from woefully inadequate to laughably uninformed to maddeningly false. Some VPAT submissions give the appearance of being filled out by someone in a hurry while others appear to be filled in by the marketing department. Below, I’d like to talk about why a skilled third party should be filling out the VPAT documents for your products.
Preparing a VPAT requires extensive knowledge of Section 508
Vendors must keep in mind that the majority of the information asked for in a VPAT is technical in nature. Additionally, it requires specific knowledge of accessibility as well as specific knowledge of each provision covered by the document. Typically, vendor staff will not have a sufficient background in accessibility and Section 508 to know how to fill in the VPAT correctly. I happen to be less cynical than many of my peers, some of whom feel badly filled VPAT documents are caused by vendors who lie. I think VPAT documents are often incorrect because the person filling in the document does not understand accessibility and Section 508. If you don’t have a Section 508 & accessibility SME, find one or hire a consultant who can test the product and fill out the VPAT.
The information in the VPAT must be based on comprehensive review
The information in a VPAT document is a statement on the accessibility of the entire product including all features and functionality. This requires a comprehensive audit of the system. I’ve seen VPAT documents which appear to be incomplete, discussing only portions of the product. This might be because the product has evolved substantially since the VPAT was first created or because the person who filled in the VPAT misunderstood the requirements. In either case, the VPAT must be based on a comprehensive review of all system features used by any agency employee or citizen and must be relevant to the version being procured.
The information in the VPAT should be as objective and unbiased as possible
The vendor needs to understand that the VPAT document is not a sales tool. It is not a marketing brochure, it is vital information, like technical specifications. You wouldn’t tell the procuring official your product works on Linux if it required Windows. The same level of clarity and honesty needs to be given in the VPAT as well. Every provision should be given complete, honest disclosure regarding the product’s level of compliance with that provision.In my experience, I’ve found that being dishonest in your VPAT is more likely to cause you headaches than being honest about your product’s shortcomings. Per Section 508, the government is required to purchase the most accessible product which meets their business needs, even if the product is not compliant with all of the relevant 508 provisions. Most of the 508 staff at government agencies have seen enough VPATs that you’re more likely to increase their scrutiny of your product by omitting details or filling it with marketing speak. Therefore if you want the procurement to go smoothly, give them a VPAT with clear, complete, and unbiased information.
The VPAT becomes part of the procurement
Your VPAT document is your statement to your customer about how your product helps them comply with a legal mandate. While it is true that the procuring official should do their due diligence at ensuring they’ve purchased the most accessible product, part of that due diligence is in checking the VPAT documents for the competing products. On the vendor’s side it is important to remember that the VPAT document may be a strong contributing factor in their buying decision. If your VPAT claims that the product has a higher level of compliance than reality, the customer may attempt to compel you to remediate the product to meet your claims. I have, in fact, seen this happen at a very large agency. The agency successfully argued that the vendor’s VPAT stated the product was accessible. The agency’s testing of the product revealed significant shortcomings, and they made the vendor fix the product.
Examples of Bad VPATs
Oxygen Forensic Software
Oxygen Forensic Suite 2011 is a mobile forensic software that goes beyond standard logical analysis of cell phones, smartphones and PDAs. Using advanced proprietary protocols permits Oxygen Forensic Suite 2011 to extract much more data than usually extracted by logical forensic tools, especially for smartphones.
This VPAT, received by a very large government agency indicates quite clearly that the person who filled in this document had no understanding at all of Section 508. Further it seems they lacked the technical understanding of accessibility and the product itself, so rather than fill out anything, they simply entered "N/A" under any provision including the provisions which clearly are applicable. This is a perfect demonstration of why a third party should have prepared this VPAT.
Discoverer is an intuitive ad-hoc query, reporting, analysis, and Web-publishing tool that empowers business users at all levels of the organization to gain immediate access to information from data marts, data warehouses, online transaction processing systems and Oracle E-Business Suite
To be frank, I don’t understand Oracle. As far as I can tell, Oracle software has been the cause of more accessibility lawsuits than any other software company , , . At the same time, I’ve met some of the folks who work on accessibility at Oracle and they’re extremely knowledgeable and truly committed to accessibility. I can’t understand why, then, the company itself seems so clueless about accessibility. This VPAT for Oracle Discoverer appears to have a lot of information entered. If you read it, however, you’ll see it is no more clear or informative than the VPAT for Oxygen. Each of the 1194.21 provisions have comments which say: "Product has been coded to meet this standard subject to the remarks on the right", yet absolutely no remarks were entered anywhere.
Examples of Good VPATs
This VPAT for Captivate 5 should be regarded as the example against which other VPATs should be measured. In fact, every Adobe VPAT I’ve seen is good. They are detailed, clear, and honest. The Captivate VPAT clearly discloses any shortcomings in both the Captivate Authoring interface and its output.
Hire a Third Party to Avoid Problems
If you’re attempting to sell EIT/ICT products or services to the Federal government or other public sector entities required to comply with Section 508 or who have adopted 508-like requirements, a clear, complete, and informative VPAT document can go a long way toward ensuring a trouble-free purchase of your product. Navigating the procurement process is complicated enough without the added headaches of pushback and difficulties caused by an incomplete or uninformative VPAT. Barring the existence of knowledgeable accessibility SMEs like those at Adobe, your best bet would be to hire a skilled third party to make the VPAT for you.