ARTICLE: Lauren DeMarks & Alex Hiser

Does your EdTech product need to prove its commitment to accessibility with a VPAT?

One of the most important continuing conversations you’ll have about your EdTech product is about how it meets accessibility standards. Adhering to accessibility guidelines isn’t just about avoiding penalties. It’s just the right thing to do. All of your users deserve access to the same information, no matter what their physical or mental abilities. 

The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) are meant to ensure your product’s content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Making sure your product lives up to those principles is not a one-and-done affair. It requires constant evaluations and improvements. You may need to do an internal accessibility audit to work through small compliance issues. Or you may need to go a step further with a VPAT.

A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT™) documents your product’s conformance to Revised 508 Standards and WCAG’s guidelines. Completing a VPAT can require a significant amount of your team’s time and energy. However, it goes well beyond serving as a path to a better experience for all users – it also serves as legal documentation that many educational institutions require in order to adopt an EdTech product. 

Sure, attending to your product’s accessibility gaps protects you from public scrutiny. But aiming for a minimum of meeting AA level accessibility standards with a VPAT can also differentiate your product in today’s market. And more importantly, you’ll serve all users well. 

What is a VPAT?

The VPAT is a specific template that allows you to document conformance issues that you find in an accessibility audit. While a VPAT is the name of the template, the reporting process is often informally referred to as a VPAT as well. 

The template itself is relatively simple. The guidelines are in one column, and the levels of conformity (does not support, partially supports, or supports) are in the next. The final column is for any notation. 

A VPAT can be completed by an in-house accessibility specialist or by an outside agency. Either way, they will need to be well versed in the VPAT guidelines and accessibility requirements. 

A VPAT Can Build Trust — And Your Accessibility Roadmap

If your product is used by the federal government or uses government funds, a VPAT is required. Few EdTech products fit that bill. But you may want to consider a VPAT for the following reasons:

  • Proof of loyalty. When you choose to dedicate time and resources to creating an accessible product, you’re building trust with all of your users. You’re more likely to be perceived as aware, empathetic, and proactive. 
  • Confirmation of your accessibility baseline. It’s critical to know where your product currently stands in terms of meeting accessibility standards. 
  • Identification of accessibility improvement areas. Knowing your product needs to improve isn’t enough. A VPAT will outline where improvements need to be made. 
  • Prioritization of next steps. It’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to decide what improvements to make first. A VPAT can help you establish a clear priority list, especially if levels of severity have been noted. You’ll be able to disperse engineering and UX resources appropriately. 
  • Proof of accessibility. You can voluntarily, publicly, and confidently show when your product meets or exceeds standards. 

Ideally, your team can add some additional components to the standard VPAT template. For example, including levels of severity (minor, moderate, or critical) in the template can help your team quickly identify the most pressing issues. Your specialist can also add recommendations about best remediations. 

While adding extras to the basic template can be a lot of work, your team will be able to prioritize accessibility improvements much more efficiently. Making the effort to categorize severity upfront can save you an enormous amount of work later. 

A VPAT is certainly not the only way to address accessibility issues. Your team can elect to conduct an informal accessibility audit. An informal audit is less structured and demanding. You can choose what part of your product to test, run automated and manual tests, and create a workable plan. With minor concerns, an informal audit is probably sufficient. You’ll still need to categorize and prioritize accessibility issues and build a remediation roadmap.

Publish the VPAT On Your Site, Even If Your Product Has Non-compliance Issues

A VPAT can direct both your short and long-term accessibility fixes. And while you work on them, there’s no need to hide where your product currently falls short. In fact, making your compliance issues public may serve you well. Publishing your VPAT on your site allows you to:

  • Communicate that you care. Users can see you are actively taking steps to address accessibility problems. 
  • Record your accessibility updates. Your VPAT can be regularly updated to note your product’s specific improvements and document your progress.
  • Provide evidence of an unbiased accessibility evaluation. Rather than relying on an in-house facilitator, consider hiring an outside one. Your VPAT results are more likely to be perceived as unbiased.
  • Differentiate your product. Building a more inclusive product and publicly charting your choices sets you apart from your competitors. Many users will naturally prefer a product striving to meet and exceed accessibility standards.

Some issues (like ensuring instructions are clear and succinct) may only take a quarter to resolve, and other issues may take much longer. Having an actionable remediation plan — and proving you are doing more than the bare minimum — demonstrates your commitment to all of your users.  

Improving Accessibility With a VPAT Is Beneficial For For All Users

Accessibility improvements that result from a VPAT benefit those with disabilities. But elements like navigable dashboards, simple data visualizations, and plain language benefit all users. Responding to and investing in the needs of some, then, improves the experience of all. 

When you know your product has substantial accessibility gaps, a VPAT can be the best way forward. While a VPAT can be complex and time consuming, the end result is deeply valuable. You’ll steer clear of any legal ramifications and reduce risk to your product’s reputation. And with a VPAT, you’ll be armed with facts, clear priorities, and the most efficient roadmap to meet all users’ needs.

  • Photo of Lauren DeMarks
    Lauren DeMarks

    As a UX designer at Openfield, Lauren combines her love of helping and connecting with others with her passion for design. She holds a BFA from Miami University in Graphic Design, as well as minors in Art Entrepreneurship and Interactive Media Studies. Outside of the office, she is very serious about ultimate frisbee. Having played on both the men’s and women’s teams in college, she continues to help her alma mater introduce young women to the sport she loves so much. Lauren has a thirst for travel, having lived and studied abroad in Luxembourg and state-side in San Francisco, and is committed to supporting products and services that contribute directly to environmental and sustainability issues.

  • Photo of Alex Hiser
    Alex Hiser

    Alex graduated from Ohio University with a B.S. in Visual Communications and specializations in User Experience Design and Publication. While studying there, she found her way to a career in UX when one of her professors suggested her knowledge of design and her ability to empathize with the unarticulated needs of users would make her a great asset to any UX team (spoiler alert: she was right!). As an IAAP Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC), Alex is committed to ensuring accessibility standards are met by our team. She also received a minor in Spanish while studying abroad in Toledo, Spain. Alex is an explorer at heart. She enjoys traveling to new cities, visiting cathedrals and temples, trying and cooking new foods and checking off her “Things to Do and See” lists. She continues to study the Spanish language through podcasts, movies and speaking it with friends. Alex feels a deep connection to nature. Her favorite hobbies include gardening, caring for exotic houseplants, and spending time with her pet Hedgehog, Milo.

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