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California Community Colleges Accessibility CenterIncluding checks for accessibility into information technology (IT) purchases is not intended to create difficulties or obstruct the procurement process. In fact, you can have a positive impact on accessibility when interacting with vendors even if you are not an expert.

A frequently cited concern is that the lack of knowledge or familiarity with accessibility standards will result in the purchase of a product or service that not only fails to meet the institution’s academic and business needs, but also fails individuals with disabilities. While understandable, there are strategies to consider for reviewing the accessibility of a given product and ensuring the best purchase for the institution.

Obtain Documentation

A starting point in the evaluation process is to inform the vendor of the college’s accessibility expectations and standards and to obtain relevant documentation. For hardware and software applications, the U.S. Section 508 Standards are appropriate. For web-based systems, the
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, Level AA should be used (some institutions have selected WCAG 2.0, Level AA for all IT-based solutions). While neither standard alone will guarantee full accessibility, both offer an initial step in communicating your accessibility expectations to the vendor.

Most product documentation from vendors takes the form of a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPATⓇ). Developed by the Information Technology Industry Council, the VPAT started as a means to make a preliminary assessment regarding a product’s accessibility. Over the years, however, the VPAT has become more of a marketing tool and does not offer a significant amount of detail as to how a product meets or fails a given accessibility standard. One of the most common responses to an accessibility checkpoint on a product VPAT is “Supports - with Exceptions” indicating there are accessibility issues, but without any useful details.

An emerging strategy by educational institutions is to use the VPAT documentation as a starting point, but modified to the institution’s specific needs. For example, George Mason University created customized accessibility templates as part of its procurement process using the U.S. Section 508 Standards and WCAG 2.0, Level AA standards depending on the type of IT product or service. The California State University system developed the CSU Accessible Procurement Process, a four-step workflow complete with templates and guidance to vendors on how to complete the accessibility documentation. The California Community Colleges (CCC) Accessibility Center created a WCAG 2.0, Level AA-based template [DOCX] for CCC campuses and districts to modify as appropriate when seeking accessibility feedback for web-based solutions. A common theme with these accessibility templates is that, while all are based on established accessibility standards, there is an expectation that a vendor describes in detail how the product does or does not meet the relevant criteria.

Ask Questions

While obtaining accessibility documentation is a beginning, such accessibility templates should not be used alone in deciding the extent by which a product or service supports access. Asking questions and inquiring how a product supports access by individuals with disabilities can provide additional insight about the level of accessibility. For example, has the vendor evaluated if the product works with screen-reader (e.g., JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver, etc.) or screen-magnification software? Has anyone at the company tried using the product following the rules of the No Mouse Challenge?

Documentation supplied by the vendor can also generate questions when reviewing products. For example, if a vendor claims their product is accessible “with Exceptions,” the follow-up questions should begin with, “Could you please describe those exceptions?” Talking with vendors can provide a great deal of insight about the product and where there may be areas of concern. The CCC Accessibility Center started a list of questions to ask when interacting with vendors and beginning a dialogue about accessibility.

Request Demonstrations

Product demonstrations can provide an up-close view of a product’s functionality and accessibility testing can be part of these presentations. Such displays offer the chance to observe real-world interactions of how a product can be used in conjunction with assistive technology (AT) applications. Product demonstrations that include assistive technology should not be conducted as a “surprise” test, but rather an opportunity to assess how the application in question can be used with specified assistive technologies. Inform the vendor in advance of your interest in having such a demonstration and select those AT solutions supported at your college. This may be an excellent opportunity to reach out to your college’s High Tech Center program within the Disabled Students Programs and Services department to find out what AT applications are used at your institution.

It is disingenuous to say that just by following the aforementioned suggestions you will have no concerns about a product’s level of accessibility and will always select the most accessible product. Even after receiving documentation, asking questions and viewing demonstrations, there may be situations in which IT products are purchased, only to discover later there is a hidden accessibility issue. And while such situations might happen, one outcome is absolute: Ignoring accessibility discussions during procurement will guarantee that a student, faculty or staff member with a disability will—at some point—be denied the opportunity to participate in an educational system intended for everyone. We have the knowledge, skills and expertise to reject that outcome. And so we must.


Sean Keegan is Director of the California Community Colleges Accessibility Center