Understanding VPATs – an Overview

Man and woman coworkers working on website accessibility projects.

What are they and why does my organization need one?

Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs) are statements of accessibility about your products, both digital (online and software) and physical. They describe the accessibility of your products and any support materials you have available.  They will inform buyers about the accessibility of your products and whether they meet purchasing requirements for your customers. Understanding VPATs can help you better present your products and services and help your procurement staff better choose solutions. 

VPATs cover the following: 

  • Section 1194.21 Software Applications and Operating Systems
  • Section 1194.22 Web-based Internet Information and Applications
  • Section 1194.23 Telecommunications Products
  • Section 1194.24 Video and Multi-media Products
  • Section 1194.25 Self-Contained, Closed Products
  • Section 1194.26 Desktop and Portable Computers
  • Section 1194.31 Functional Performance Criteria
  • Section 1194.41 Information, Documentation and Support

VPATS are required to win government contracts.  It is vital that you ensure that your VPAT does not misrepresent your product.  A correctly completed VPAT protects your company, demonstrates a commitment to accessibility and can be used as a roadmap for making your software more accessible in the future. It’s good business practice to ensure its accuracy.

Your VPAT is an official statement of accessibility.  It needs to be accurate and clear in order to protect your company and provide potential purchasers with enough information to evaluate whether it meets their requirements for accessibility.  VPATs are part of the government procurement process and serve as official statements by your company. They affect your business just like any other official documentation, which means an inaccurate VPAT can affect any contracts to which it applies.

Many contracts contain language stating that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) must be accessible and any issues with accessibility must be remediated. It is necessary to both know and understand the standards of access technology in order to determine whether the ICT used is accessible and ensure accessibility issues have been successfully remediated.

Four versions of VPATs

You can download a blank VPAT 2.3 template from ITIC.org.  There are four variations.

  • 508: Revised Section 508 standards – the U.S. Federal accessibility standard
  • EU: EN 301 549 – the European Union’s “Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe”
  • WCAG: WCAG 2.1 or ISO/IEC 40500 – W3C/WAI’s recently updated Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This template (version 2.3) was released December 19, 2018.
  • INT: Incorporates all three of the above standards. 

Don’t forget product documentation on your VPAT

Note that Section 1194.41 covers Information, Documentation, and Support.  This means your user guides, FAQs, online support, and online training programs must be accessible.  If your user guide is posted on the web, it needs to be accessible. If it is a PDF, the PDF must be accessible.  Any training videos should be accessible, including captioning and audio description.

And then there are GPATS

A Government Product/Service Accessibility Template (GPAT) is used by the General Service Administration (GSA) BuyAccessible program.  They describe whether or not your products meet the government accessibility requirements and are specifically targeted towards the government procurement process.  

Who should fill out my VPAT?

VPATs contain specific technical information about your products.  They should be filled out by someone familiar with your products and with accessibility. Often collaboration between technical and forward-facing departments will produce the most accurate VPAT.  As accessibility lawsuits become more and more common, it’s important to ensure the accuracy of your VPAT. Have a look at this page for more information about VPAT completion and validation.

A note for those evaluating VPATs

How to read and understand a VPAT will be covered in greater depth in a future blog post, but there are a few common pitfalls:

  • It is rare to see a VPAT that was both accurately completed AND listed zero exceptions. In general, a VPAT that lists a dozen exceptions is better than one that lists zero exceptions because it reflects that a real review has actually been conducted; existing issues are on the radar and in the pipeline for fixing.
  • Take note of the date the VPAT was completed. Many are created once and used as a static resource to tick the box in the government procurement process. Unless all development and bug fixes have halted on the product, a VPAT should never be more than a year old.
  • On the flip side, if the entire VPAT was completed in just a few days right before you received it, was it just written specifically for you? How much accuracy can be expected from a highly technical document that was thrown together at the last minute?
  • Check which testing process was used.  Many are populated based on the results of an accessibility checker; ideally, a combination of assistive technologies should be used for manual testing instead of, or in addition to, an automated check.
  • Check if the VPAT itself is accessible. Many VPATs are created and saved in the PDF format and distributed untagged. This practice speaks volumes about the accessibility culture that exists within the vendor. If they do not make the effort to ensure the VPAT is accessible, they definitely do not have processes in place to ensure accessibility of other documentation.
  • If exceptions are listed, ask the vendor what their plan looks like to resolve those problems.

Need help filling out a VPAT?  Have a VPAT from a potential vendor that you would like evaluated?  We can help

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Ryan Pugh

Ryan Pugh | Director of Accessibility | Onix Prior to joining Onix, Ryan Pugh served as an Access Technology Analyst for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Baltimore, where he was the NFB's focal point for accessibility and usability testing. He conducted intensive web accessibility audits for compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA for numerous Fortune 500 companies, including some of the world’s largest online retailers, notable colleges and universities, government agencies at the federal, state and local levels and for other non-profit institutions. He also delivered accessibility training workshops and managed the NFB’s document remediation program, specializing in PDF accessibility.