In order to ensure accessibility of IT products used at the University of Washington, those responsible for making decisions about which products to procure must consider accessibility as one of the criteria for acquisition. This is especially critical for enterprise-level systems or technologies that affect a large number of students, faculty, and/or staff. Considering accessibility in procurement involves the following steps:
- Vendors must be asked to provide information about the accessibility of their products.
- The information provided by vendors must be valid, measured using a method that is reliable and objective.
- Those making procurement decision must be able to objectively evaluate the accessibility of products, and to scrutinize the information provided by vendors.
Requesting Accessibility Information from Vendors
The following are examples of accessibility language that could be used in requests for proposals (RFP’s) and purchasing contracts:
- Samples of Procurement Language
This page on accessibility policy from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education includes sample accessibility language for requests for proposals, purchasing contracts of specific products, and purchasing procedures used for general purchasing.
- University of California Procurement and Product Accessibility
This page describes UC requirements, and includes a link to sample text for inclusion in RFP’s.
- California State University Accessible Electronic and Information Technology Procurement
As part of its system-wide Accessible Technology Initiative, CSU provides procedures, checklists, and other resources to support vendors and institutions in meeting accessibility requirements in procurement.
- MIT Web and software Accessibility Policies and Guidelines
Most notable among MIT’s accessibility resources are checklists to assist in evaluating accessibility when purchasing web based products or software.
In the second example, UC has followed the lead of the federal government and is requiring that vendors provide supporting documentation of their products’ compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (for more about Section 508, consult our Policies & Standards page). Since many vendors who sell products to higher education also sell products to the federal government, these vendors may already have a mechanism for reporting on their products’ compliance with Section 508 standards.
Evaluating Product Accessibility with a VPAT
The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a standard form developed to assist federal agencies in fulfilling their Section 508 requirements. Therefore, one way that vendors may be asked to report on the accessibility of their products is to submit a completed VPAT. This is the approach taken by the University of California in the example in the preceding section.
There are limitations to the VPAT since it is a self-report completed by the vendor. Some vendors do not have adequate technical expertise to accurately assess accessibility. Others skillfully complete their VPATs in ways that trivialize the significance of accessibility shortcomings. Also, Section 508 is itself a limiting standard, purposefully developed to be the minimum standard by which federal agencies are to be held legally accountable. Products can technically meet Section 508 standards yet still present significant barriers in usability for people with disabilities. A VPAT will not catch these barriers.
Evaluating Product Accessibility through Independent Third Party Reviews
As an alternative to the VPAT, or as a second source used to supplement the VPAT, independent third party resources should be consulted about the accessibility of products under consideration. Vendors could be asked to accompany proposals with an accessibility audit from a list of previously approved evaluation companies, or the person or group making the procurement decision could seek the opinions and experiences of their peers in higher education. The following are a few of the communities where higher education professionals share information on IT accessibility:
- Access Technologists Higher Education Network (ATHEN)
This professional organization is comprised of individuals engaged in IT accessibility work in higher education institutions worldwide. The ATHEN discussion list is a particularly helpful resource – subscribers are typically very responsive to requests about product accessibility.
- Accessibility of Specific Products – ATHEN’s new wiki, still in early stages of development, designed to facilitate communication among higher education entities on the accessibility of specific products.
- EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group
This list has light traffic, but has over 200 accessibility-minded members working in the trenches of IT in higher education.