Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that technology procured, developed, or maintained by institutions that receive federal funding must be accessible to people with disabilities. In the decades since that law was enacted we have seen an unmistakable increase in the prevalence and prominence of technology in higher education. An important corollary to this increase is the number of lawsuits waged by disabled peoples and organizations against universities for violating these laws. Our legal exposure and our duty to ensure an equal education for all who are admitted put a serious institutional emphasis on accessibility.
Any company that produces a product to be sold to universities, colleges, municipalities, and other institutions that receive federal funding must ensure that their product does not violate Section 508. To that end, these producers will fill out a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). The VPAT is a list of all of the technical criteria of Section 508 that the product vendor fills out to describe the successes and shortcomings in meeting these criteria. The university can use this VPAT to assess the product, determine our exposure, compare bids, and track our due diligence in compliance with the law.
The VPAT consists of three columns. The first lists all of the technical language included in Section 508, item by item. In the second column, the company lists whether each criterion is ‘supported,’ ‘partially supported,’ ‘not supported,’ ‘conditionally supported,’ etc. The third column is provided for the company to make any notes about any criterion to justify or explain how and why it is supported or not. By looking at what criteria are supported and considering how the product’s shortcomings would affect our intentions, our procurement processes can better provide for all eventual users while helping to ensure as little exposure as possible.
In the procurement process, university faculty and staff should request a VPAT for all products that could involve an accessibility issue. A critical review of the VPAT can then indicate the extent to which our intended use of that product leaves us exposed and vulnerable to future problems. The university and each of its departments and institutions have a great responsibility in this matter because we are accountable for the general accessibility of the technology and electronics we use. Our level of accountability rises drastically as soon as someone is unable to use it as intended. For more information, please visit the ATS’ website.