Marc Lind

Understanding VPATs and Their Importance in University Partnerships

There has been an influx of accessibility-related questions for both education customers and organizations that sell to education institutions. Every week, I have several conversations with universities and software companies, stating, “We’re being asked to solve accessibility. Where should we start?”

This isn’t surprising since many organizations have to tighten their accessibility belts, given the OMB’s Call-To-Action, which is beginning to trickle down to the state level. 

States like Colorado have passed HB21-1110, which requires state entities, like universities and K-12 schools, to ensure all their digital properties have been assessed for compliance with a clear remediation roadmap by July 1st, 2024. 

Rhode Island is looking to follow in Colorado’s footsteps, having proposed similar laws and deadlines come 2025! 

Even states that do not have formal accessibility laws, such as Texas, have many educational institutions requiring proof of digital accessibility.

It is clear that accessibility is not going anywhere in the education space, so in the article, I will discuss the role of a VPAT in education procurement.

What is a VPAT?

VPAT stands for Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). At its core, a VPAT provides an analysis of how a product or service conforms to accessibility standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the U.S. Section 508 standards. The report provides a detailed breakdown of accessibility factors, covering software interfaces, documentation, and support services. The goal is to enable all users to use the product or service effectively regardless of their abilities.

We have a detailed article about VPATs: What are VPATs and why are they so important?

We also have a webinar on VPATs: Understanding VPATs

Why VPATs are Crucial for Educational Institutions and their Partnerships

When organizations propose their products or services to an educational institution, a VPAT serves as a testament to their commitment to accessibility. It’s not just about compliance; it’s about documenting your organization’s understanding and integration of accessibility principles in the product development lifecycle.

Educational Institutions, driven by their mandate to provide inclusive education, place significant importance on ensuring that the tools and technologies they adopt are accessible to all students.

The VPAT communicates not just a product’s current accessibility status but also the vendor’s roadmap for maintaining and improving accessibility.

Many organizations we speak with looking to get a VPAT are always concerned that the VPAT will show the product is not accessible and that it will put their relationship in jeopardy. In most cases, that is not true. A “bad” VPAT is a proactive demonstration of the vendor’s awareness of essential accessibility norms and regulations.

Assuming you acknowledge your organization’s faults and demonstrate a roadmap to accessibility, a “bad” VPAT is better than no VPAT!

In the educational institution’s lens, a VPAT is the document that influences decision-making and reflects the vendor’s readiness to meet the diverse needs of students and staff.

Trusting the VPAT in Procurement

VPATs are incredibly important for education providers to ensure they maintain compliance; however, many teams do not have the bandwidth to assess each vendor they interact with. To support education teams in ensuring the products that they procure are accessible, the Allyant team has launched an offering: ProcureEnsure

I have linked an article below that discusses the offering in more detail; however, to summarize, ProcureEnsure intends for our team to provide a high-level assessment of the products your team wishes to purchase. This way, your team can make a data-driven decision on the risk you assume when procuring that product and validate that the VPAT that was presented to your team is accurate.

Similarly, ProcureEnsure can also support software companies by ensuring that any third-party technology you integrate into your product does not risk your accessibility progress.

Read More: ProcureEnsure: Solving the Challenge of Accessibility Reviews in Procurement

How VPATs Aid Both Vendors and Universities

VPATs: More Than a Compliance Checklist for Vendors

For vendors, preparing a VPAT (or Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR), as it is sometimes referenced) is more than a compliance exercise; it’s an opportunity to conduct a thorough introspection of your product’s accessibility and grade your overall user experience.

This process not only helps identify and address current accessibility gaps but also lays the groundwork for future product development, with accessibility as a core consideration. 

A well-prepared VPAT demonstrates to universities that the vendor is not only aware of but also actively engaged in the pursuit of creating universally accessible products. This proactive stance can enhance the vendor’s reputation and be a key differentiator in competitive procurement processes. 

I just wrote an article on that, which I have linked below:

Read More: The Role of Section 508 in Accessible Procurement

Enhanced Decision-Making for Educational Institutions

Educational institutions, on the other hand, benefit immensely from the transparency that a VPAT offers. It allows them to make more informed decisions regarding the procurement of technology. With a detailed VPAT in hand, their procurement teams can assess how well a product meets the accessibility needs of their student body.

This is crucial in avoiding the costly mistake of investing in technology that is not universally accessible, thereby upholding the institution’s commitment to inclusivity and equality in education.

Moreover, a VPAT can be a starting point for discussing accessibility improvements and future collaborations between the university and the vendor. It fosters an environment of continuous improvement and adaptation, ensuring that the products used in universities evolve in line with the changing accessibility landscape and diverse user needs.

Staying Current with VPAT Requirements and the Impact on State Education

Keeping Up-to-Date with Accessibility Standards

In the ever-evolving landscape of digital accessibility, staying updated with current standards and VPAT requirements is critical. This includes being aware of updates to key guidelines like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Section 508 standards. 

But WCAG can be a rabbit hole for many people tackling it for the first time. WCAG 2.0 AA has been the standard for some time despite WCAG 2.1 being out since June 2018. With WCAG 2.2 rolling out in October 2023, many are left wondering how long 2.1 may be the recognized standard. 

This is why partnering with a reputable third-party vendor such as Allyant can help you monitor these changes and reflect them in your products and VPAT documentation. Attending industry conferences and participating in webinars can provide valuable insights and help vendors stay ahead of the curve.

Leveraging VPATs for Continuous Improvement

More often than not, the process of creating and updating a VPAT should be seen as an ongoing journey toward better accessibility rather than a compliance checkbox. A VPAT does not need to be perfect, but as more and more companies are integrating accessibility into their product development lifecycle, being as accessible as possible has its benefits!

This mindset helps vendors continuously improve their products, ensuring they meet the needs of all users, including those with disabilities. It’s a proactive approach that can significantly enhance a product’s usability and market appeal.

Broader Impact on State Education

The implications of VPATs extend beyond individual vendor-education relationships. They contribute to a more significant movement towards digital inclusivity in state education. By requiring VPATs, universities are not only ensuring that their immediate community benefits from accessible technology but also driving the market towards higher accessibility standards.

This has a ripple effect. As more educational institutions demand accessible products, vendors are incentivized to prioritize accessibility from the onset of product development. This, in turn, leads to a broader range of accessible products being available in the market, benefiting not just the education sector but all digital technology users.

The emphasis on VPATs in university procurement also sends a strong message about the importance of inclusivity in education. It underscores the commitment of educational institutions to provide equal access to all students, fostering an environment where everyone, regardless of their abilities, has the opportunity to learn and succeed.