Category Archives: Legal

VPATs – publish or perish

Help – what is a VPAT?

I still remember the first time I heard of a VPAT. I had just moved to the Boston area to work on the UX team at EBSCO Publishing. My new manager greeted me with “I am so glad you are here! We need to update our VPAT as soon as we can. You can get started on that right away.”

I didn’t have the heart or confidence to tell her I had no idea whatsoever what a VPAT was so I used my default which is to say, “Of course. I’ll get right on it.”

Fast track!

I immediately got a copy of their outdated VPAT, looked up the template on the ITIC site and figured out that there was an incredible amount (like weeks of testing) that should back up a VPAT. Oh, and along the way, I figured out that VPAT meant “Voluntary Product Accessibility Template”. Also that it is an industry standard way, courtesy of the ITIC (Information Technology Industry Council),  to tell your customers how well (or poorly) you have conformed to the accessibility standards for software or hardware set by the US Government.

I also learned that the reason the sales department had sent up an emergency “Get us a current VPAT!!” distress signal was because they were in the midst of sales negotiations where the library customer demanded a VPAT or they would not buy! This stance is likely to produce panic in any salesperson.

The race is on!

Luckily for them I had a very good history of prioritizing testing so that business critical needs would be met on time.  So, I decided what could and could not be tested on the EBSCOhost site in the immediate future. I set about doing that. EBSCOhost is a platform which allows a library to present databases of information, eBooks and other content to their customers. Using a subscription model approach a library can offer their customers an amazing amount of information at a set price.

From an accessibility point of view the content presents problems.  The content is produced by many, many publishers who have no uniform standard of producing content that meet the Section 508 or WCAG 2.0 guidelines. This means  there may or may not be alt text for images. There might not be captioning, if the content has videos. There may not be proper coding.  A person who cannot use a mouse might not be able to move through the pages using only a keyboard or similar device. The pragmatic truth of this situation is that, while the platform might be very compliant some of the content probably will not be.

My VPAT, produced in a couple of weeks, of the large and complex EBSCOhost platform helped save the deal and was used for a couple of years until the code had changed enough to merit a new VPAT, which someone else tested for and documented.

My takeaways

VPATs are largely used to facilitate sales when customers demand them as part of their RFP sales process.

VPATs are only as good as testers and evaluators make them.

VPATs are a moving target. They are not written in stone, but in digital bits, subject to updating as code and conditions change.

I am one blind person who can’t access your offering

laptop displaying programAll too often I hear software vendors, businesses of all types, individual product managers/ developers etc. say “We don’t have blind or deaf customers. Sure it would be nice to have a website/ application/ offering that would work for them, but we just don’t have the demand.”

This is about legal. It’s a true story based on a single blind person’s request for accommodation, failure to get the needed accommodation and how the Seattle Public School system is paying a higher than necessary price to offer that accommodation.

The story begins in July, 2012 when Noel Nightingale, mother of three children in the Seattle Public School district and a person who is blind and relies on the JAWS screen reader to access the web could no longer navigate effectively through the Seattle Public School website. There had been an update to the website which made formerly accessible links and forms available to Ms. Nightingale unusable for her.

Despite engaging the webmaster to restore accessibility and having promises that that would be done there was no material change. Additionally her middle child was placed with his peers into a new online math program, ST Math. This innovative math teaching program relies on visual inputs. While this may be great for a person with sight, as a blind parent, Ms. Nightingale was not able to monitor his progress at home, which is part of the school’s expectation.

Finally, with a second child in the ST Math program, with the Seattle Public School district website still inaccessible a lawsuit was brought to get relief. This is the full text of the motion for preliminary injunction brought in US District Court in Washington state. The injunction was filed in October, 2014 after approximately a year and a half of less formal but ongoing negotiations.

In September, 2015 the Seattle School Board voted to enter into a consent decree to fix the issues. This is a 3 1/2 year long decree which is estimated will cost the district between $665k and $815K to implement. It had previously been estimated that it would cost @ $90K to fix the website.

Part of the settlement is to hire an Accessibility Coordinator. Job anyone?

 

To Caption or not to Caption

woman eating watching movieAs soon as your content includes videos you should be thinking about captioning. In the simplest form, captioning is those words on the screen that are readable as the audio portion of the program is spoken. The idea is that captioning is only useful for deaf or people who are hard of hearing. Not true. An oft quoted survey from the UK done in 2006 revealed that 80% of TV viewers who used closed captioning did not have hearing difficulties. Times have changed, technology has advanced, yet many people without any hearing loss use captioning as a way to enhance/ enjoy videos. They listen in a public area and don’t want to disturb others, on a noisy subway and they situationally can’t hear the sound or they get more out of the content if they can watch and read the words at the same time (dual sensory input).

The law: The US Congress passed a Twenty-First Century Communications and Accessibility Act in 2010, with a string of updates and clarifications through 2015. Two broad areas are covered. One is products and services that use Broadband. The other is video programming on television and the internet.

In February, 2015, National Association for the Deaf (NAD) and some individuals sued Harvard and MIT over lack of captioning or very poor captioning of the video content they provide, covering online lectures, podcasts, courses and more. In June, 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) joined the lawsuit advocating a speedy resolution and captioning be provided.

Netflix has lead the way to providing full captioning, even though it was, regretfully, a result of a successful lawsuit. YouTube provides an automated captioning option. The results, while technically over 90% accurate lead to, often hilarious (if you are able to hear the discrepancies) wildly incongruous word juxtapositions. If you doubt me, just switch on captioning when you are on YouTube next and find your own examples. Any time a person mumbles or has the slightest speech anomaly or accent there is no telling how the automated captioning will record it.

So, to caption or not to caption? When in doubt, decent captioning should be built into your process, including everyone and building your brand as inclusive.