You are looking at acquiring a new system for your site. You know it needs to be accessible, but you don’t know much about accessibility - and you aren’t really a “techie.” How can you improve your chances of procuring an accessible product from a 3rd party vendor?
The reality is that few vendors provide accessible products, or even have accessibility on their radar screen. And you may not have a lot of options. There are not many accessible live chat platforms, or calendar picker widgets, for example. So it may come to having to select the least non-accessible solution. But let’s be optimistic and look at what you can do, specifically, to improve your chances of getting an accessible platform.
One of the problems you’ll encounter is that salespeople rarely know about accessibility. You might ask their sales team if their product is accessible. You will have to take the answer you get with a dose of skepticism. To improve your chances of getting accurate and useful answers, here are a few things you can do.
- Ask for a VPAT
- Ask what accessibility standards are being followed
- Test the demo product with only a keyboard
- Be specific if you are issuing an RFP
- Ask to see their accessibility implementation roadmap
Ask the vendor for a copy of their VPAT. A VPAT is a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. It is an accepted document format that is, typically, a short form accessibility-related self-assessment of the vendor’s product. There are several versions of the VPAT document. For clients who ask us to prepare a VPAT, Knowbility issues the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guideline) version. Other versions may be found on the ITIC site.
The VPAT should indicate areas that are deemed to conform to the accessibility standards, as well as the ones that are problematic. In theory, it should have some notes to explain why non-conforming areas are problematic.
However, the VPAT is only a starting point. It is not a full audit. It also is not a guarantee that the product is, in fact, accessible. It is not unheard of for VPAT documents to be inaccurate.
If the vendor doesn’t have a VPAT, or doesn’t know what it is, it is likely that they haven’t made any accessibility effort. This is information you need to add to your SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat) for your final decision.
Ask the vendor with what accessibility standard(s) their product conforms with. This practice may go hand in hand with asking about a VPAT.
Standards vary from country to country, but it is safe for you to aim for a product that conforms with WCAG 2.1 AA. This is the Web Content Accessibility Guideline, version 2.1, level AA. WCAG is a standard by the World Wide Web consortium. Version 2.1 is the most recent version and has been in effect since mid 2018. Level AA represents a subset of all accessibility success criteria available within WCAG.
It is likely that most disabled people will be able to use the product with minimal effort if it conforms to WCAG 2.1 AA.
For those of you who are interested in reviewing the guidelines, here is the actual WCAG 2.1 specification.
Testing the Product Yourself
You probably will want to have a play with the product before you buy. Doing simple keyboard testing will give you a good indication of the general accessibility health of the product.
Obviously, it is not the be all and end all of accessibility. But there are simple tests even the least technically minded person can run. Given how important keyboard-only navigation is for accessibility, assessing this can give you an idea of the status of accessibility for the site as a whole: If there are no keyboard issues, chances are the vendor has done their homework and addressed accessibility issues.
If you cannot navigate and interact with the product using only the keyboard, chances are the entire product will have multiple accessibility barriers beyond that of keyboard navigation.
Navigate the page/product interface using only your keyboard. Use the TAB key to navigate forward. Use SHIFT+TAB to navigate backwards. Use the ENTER key or the spacebar to trigger links and buttons.
- Can you get to every interactive elements, including form fields, links, and buttons?
- Can you trigger every interactive elements using only the keyboard?
- Can you see where your keyboard focus is?
You can also challenge your friends and colleagues to take the No Mouse Challenge while you’re having fun using only your keyboard to navigate!
If you are issuing a Request For Proposal, ensure you are specific in what level of accessibility you expect the product to deliver. Don’t just say “The product needs to be accessible.” Define what level of conformance you expect. For example, WCAG 2.1 AA.
You could go into more details. For instance, you could request the product to rely on native HTML5 before custom elements and ARIA. Or even define specific color contrast ratio levels that must be met. For instance, all text must have a contrast ratio of 4.5:1 or higher against the background to improve legibility.
The Texas Department of Information Resources provides further information on procurement for accessible products. For example, in Integrating Accessibility in IT Procurement, they suggest the following language:
For Consumer Off the Shelf (COTS) products, including Software as a Service (SaaS), all Vendors must submit accurate Accessibility Conformance Reports (ACRs) created using the applicable sections of the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template® (VPAT®) Revised Section 508 Edition (Version 2.3 or higher) or links to ACRs located on manufacturer websites for each proposed product or product family (as applicable) included in the submitted pricelist prior to a contract. Instructions on how to complete this document are included in the template itself. ACRs based on earlier versions of the VPAT® template will be accepted if such competed ACRs already exist, and there have been no changes to the product / service since the time of the original document completion.
Vendors claiming that a proposed product or family of products is exempt from accessibility requirements must specify the product(s) as such in “Notes” located in the product information section of the VPAT v.2.3 or higher, or as an additional note in the product information section of older VPAT versions of the form, specifying each exempt product or product family with a supporting statement(s) for this position.
With vendors, ask a lot of questions about their plans for incorporating accessibility:
- Ask the vendor what their plans are for implementing accessibility in their product.
- Ask for a specific timeline or roadmap.
- Ask what guarantees they provide that the timeline will be adhered to.
Do not rely on answers such as:
- “we care deeply about accessibility and it is something we are seriously considering implementing” or
- “a future version of our product will be fully accessible”
Both answers variations of statements we’ve seen from 3rd party vendors!
You want to do the right thing and provide your disabled clients, or students with disabilities, an accessible experience on your site. But you also have to consider liability – there are a lot of lawsuits related to accessibility.
Doing due diligence by asking a vendor about their level of compliance and their VPAT will likely provide some level of protection. Nothing is ever certain. Someone may still make a complaint against you for part of your site using a 3rd party tool. But you can then show that you took reasonable steps to ensure the accessibility of that tool.
What if you get what appears to be the right answers, but in the long run, you realize you’ve invested money in a product that is not accessible? While particularly frustrating, this is not an unusual situation.
If you were specific about what you expect from the product, and the vendor made promises that weren’t delivered, you have basis for complaint, and redress. It may not help much with the time and effort you and your team have invested in the product, but at least, it won’t be a total loss.
I don’t say this to sound pessimistic. Too many of our clients end up having to do extra work to remediate a non-accessible solution. The clients who end up with the least problems are those who:
- did due accessibility diligence,
- Asked the right questions, and
- were specific in detailing their needs.
In the End
You may have difficulty finding a fully accessible solution. Do take the time to run some simple tests to get a better feel for the product. The more precise your questions and requirements about accessibility, the more likely you are to be able to determine if a product meets your needs. And the more protected you’ll be should the product fail to meet expectations.
If we all push for accessible solutions from vendors we can help to increase awareness and the accessibility of all products.