hard at work testing for VPAT

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I immediately got a copy of their outdated VPAT, looked up the template on the ITIC site and figured out that there was an incredible amount (like weeks of testing) that should back up a VPAT.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.

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