Marc Lind

OMB’s Call-To-Action: The Role of Section 508 in Accessible Procurement

The significance of Section 508 is on the rise in 2024. Its origins date back to 1998 when the U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to ensure electronic and ICT products within federal agencies were accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Despite 25 years since its inception, the 2023 celebration of Section 508 was less than triumphant. The US Department of Justice and General Services Administration’s report to Congress unveiled alarming findings, including the inaccessibility of one-third of PDFs and 13% of agencies admitting to not testing intranet pages at all.

In response to this report, the United States Government has intensified its efforts to ensure agencies focus on procuring accessible technology. Initiatives such as allocating over $500 million for customer experience modernization and implementing recent management requirements for Section 508 compliance reflect the government’s commitment to addressing these accessibility challenges.

In essence, for businesses aiming to cater to the largest customer globally, the U.S. Government, digital accessibility poses an inevitable roadblock. The question for many teams has quickly shifted to: What criteria does the government seek, and how can an organization increase its chances of winning more business? 

The lengthy memorandum released by the Office of Management and Budget in late 2023 made it clear that Section 508 conformance must be more stringently managed and monitored, which creates WCAG 2.0 AA as the baseline minimum.

Being Section 508 Compliant

This article explains the role of Section 508 in the procurement process, so it would only be complete with a summary of what it means to be Section 508 Compliant. 

However, much like proof in mathematics class, explaining the equation could be a whole class in and of itself. Many articles circulate on the internet about the stringent details of Section 508 compliance, so I encourage you to investigate those if you are looking for specific information. 

To state the equation simply, being Section 508 compliant means any websites or software provided to the public or federal employees was designed and developed in a way that accommodates individuals with various disabilities, such as visual, auditory, or motor impairments. This may include features like alternative text for images, keyboard navigation options, and compatibility with assistive technologies.

This consists of all aspects of a website or application, including documents and third-party software embedded in these digital properties or purchased as a stand-alone solution to provide a digital engagement point by a government agency.

When the government agency purchases third parties, the outline of the accessibility of said product is typically provided by the vendor through a VPAT or ACR. 

Read more: What is a VPAT, and why is it so important?

I think my website is accessible, so I win, right?

A crucial detail regarding Section 508 needs to be clarified, whether you’re overconfident in your accessibility compliance or already out of the question.

First and foremost, being the only accessible vendor does not mean you will immediately win, nor does being inaccessible mean you are out of the question. To most, that can seem like an idiom, so what exactly does that mean?

Let’s roleplay some examples. 

You and three vendors all bid on a government RFP. Your VPAT states that your product is mostly compliant with Section 508 standards. The other vendors, not so much. Assuming all products meet the business needs, the government would choose your product over the other three bidders. 

Congratulations, you have hypothetically won your first RFP!

Onto a second scenario, but this time, imagine that your VPAT stated you were not very accessible, but the three other vendors did not have a VPAT. Assuming again all products meet the business’ need… 

Then congratulations again, you’ve won your second RFP!

And in a world where you were wildly accessible versus three vendors who failed every accessibility requirement, but you do not fit the business need, then you would likely lose that third bid.

The point is – Accessibility is not always a checkmate despite what your vendor may want you to believe.

The more important thing to remember is that all Section 508 requires is that the government procure the product that is most accessible for its business needs. If one product is most fit to meet the needs of the government entity procuring the product and it is not accessible, the government entity could technically still procure it. 

Accessibility is the differentiator, NOT the silver bullet for Section 508 compliance. However, the government did not let the clock strike 2024 without clarifying that all government agencies must build a more stringent roadmap for digital accessibility and ensure these considerations are part of the procurement process.

The V in VPAT

It’s clear now why you’d want the most accessible product in the market to meet the government’s needs. Now is an exciting time to break down the word VPAT. This acronym stands for Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. 

The key word in that phrase is Voluntary, as our team outlined in depth on a recent webinar.

There is technically nothing stopping an eager team member at your organization from whipping up a VPAT with nothing but shining praise for the accessibility of your product. 

This is critical to understand, and I’ll explain more in the next section.

If a team member does this, that could spell big trouble for your organization. Remember, the VPAT becomes a part of your RFP, and if it is later found that the product you provided does not meet the standards you’ve outlined, your organization is on the hook for whatever outcome that follows. In a best-case scenario, the client may immediately demand you fix the issue. In most cases, this would mean the contract is canceled, and your organization is liable for damages. 

Remember this example for the next section – if Company A procures your software and puts it in front of their customer, Company A is on the receiving end of the accessibility complaint and is held liable. 

Imagine you bought a TV from your favorite online retailer. If that television shows up on your doorstep broken, the retailer must deal with the complaint, issue the refund, and take reputational harm. Indeed, we can agree it is likely the TV manufacturer’s fault that the product is defective, but the supplier takes the blame and often gets a financial hit. Same with accessibility with product integrations.

This is why many organizations will likely require a neutral third party like Allyant to assess your product and complete the VPAT for you before purchasing.

Fixed All I Can Fix

So, you got the VPAT. At some point, your team had fixed everything they could fix. Technically, it is nearly impossible to be 100% compliant, but for the sake of this section, let us pretend your software is. At least the parts your organization owns because there are likely elements on your software that your team does not own, such as a third party integration.

Remember that “Company A” example outlined previously? It’s very likely your organization is right in the middle of the scenario!

Almost all software organizations have some kind of third-party system embedded in their software. Even if you have an accessibility partner, these vendors will not assess the accessibility of those 3rd party integrations. The story told to customers from accessibility companies is often, “We can assess that third-party integration, but it will cost you, and there is nothing you can do with the results anyway.”

This means if one of your third-party integrations did not accurately outline the accessibility risk, then the contract could be in jeopardy since your team procured an inaccessible integration. The reality is that most procurement teams are not assessing the accessibility of procured software due to a lack of bandwidth or knowledge surrounding the WCAG success criteria.

If they did assess the vendor’s VPAT… remember what the V stands for? Voluntary, and it is entirely possible the accessibility template was fudged. 

In a best-case scenario, the VPAT was written by a third-party organization. However, through updates and changes in the software development lifecycle, the VPAT could be old, and the team has fallen out of compliance. 

So there lies the challenge: “How can I ensure the products I integrate do not put me at risk for breaking my compliance?”

In an ideal world, your vendor would support you by manually assessing all the products you are looking to procure. That way, your team can make an accurate, data-driven decision of procuring the most accessible product that meets your business needs, with the confidence of knowing the product’s accessibility at that moment in time.


Like your own mini-Section 508 assessment team, ProcureEnsure is a free solution we provide customers to solve the problems of assessing accessibility in the procurement process. Whether you are looking to validate the VPAT presented by a software vendor or be able to line up the accessibility of 5 different products in an RFP, our team of paired accessibility auditors, including a native screen reader to ensure product usability is considered, will provide a high-level manual evaluation of any software you are looking to procure.

Build your Product Accessibility Roadmap

In summary, Section 508 compliance may help you win federal customer bids, and as outlined, the federal government requires every agency to follow processes more strongly in procurement from now on. Teams prioritizing accessibility now are more likely to win bids than vendors who are not. It is important to remember, though, that the accessibility template (VPAT) is voluntary and could put your team at risk if it is not filled out correctly. 

Government agencies procuring your software understand this as well, so to mitigate risk to them, they often require these VPATS to be filled out by a neutral 3rd party. But for the same reason the government requires this, your procurement team should take the same precautions. To ensure your team is educated and supported appropriately, it is advised to speak with a vendor like Allyant to assess the accessibility of products you are looking to integrate. Thus avoiding the risk of integrating something that breaks ADA compliance. 

Contact our team below if you have questions about obtaining an expert VPAT for your product or deploying ProcureEnsure to help support Accessible Procurement!

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