How can I tell whether a software application is accessible?

DO-IT Factsheet #1001

To determine whether a software application is accessible, the application should be evaluated according to a set of guidelines or standards that defines software accessibility.

The only legal standard is Section 1194.21 ("Software applications and operating systems") of Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards [1]. These standards were developed by the Access Board as required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. There are twelve standards, and the Access Board provides a detailed explanation of each in its Guide to the Standards [2].

Following publication of the Access Board standards, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) partnered with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to create a Section 508 compliance checklist called the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template™ [3] (VPAT™). Many software companies have completed VPATs and have made them available on their company websites. GSA has also created a central database called Buy Accessible [4], where many vendors have posted their VPATs. The database serves to assist purchasers in making informed decisions about products' accessibility. To date, there is no comprehensive third-party evaluation of software; so purchasers must rely on vendor self-representation in the VPATs, coupled with their own understanding of product features and accessibility issues.

IBM separately maintains the IBM Software Accessibility Checklist [5]. This checklist includes twenty checkpoints in seven categories, and each of the checkpoints links to specific techniques documents for software developers.

A few postsecondary educational entities have developed their own checklists, guidelines, and policies for ensuring that accessibility is considered when software is purchased. Examples include MIT [6], Oregon State University [7], and the University of Minnesota [8].

Additional information specifically for software developers is available in the AccessIT Knowledge Base article How do I develop accessible educational software? [9]