Not it! A game of accessibility hide-and-seek with technology vendors

True accessibility is a partnership between technology vendors and their customers. Based on my experience, some technology vendors are not owning their role in making sure people with disabilities are included in the digital world.

My work in recent years has been helping organizations adapt and improve culture and practice to support digital accessibility. A key component is accessible technology procurement, making sure that technology vendors and contractors are part of the solution. The Accessibility Conformance Report, or VPAT, is a standard format for vendors to document a product’s conformance with accessibility standards, including Section 508, EN 301 549 (PDF), and WCAG 2.1 ISO/IEC 40500. Asking for a VPAT (pronounced “vee-pat”) has direct and indirect benefits, including:

  • Reminding staff of commitment: When staff are required to ask for a VPAT whenever they shop for new technology, they are reminded of the organization’s commitment to digital accessibility and disability inclusion.
  • Articulating organizational policy: Asking for a VPAT is a way of communicating organizational policy to vendors and contractors, making clear that accessibility isn’t treated as a “nice-to-have” feature; it’s a requirement.
  • Pressuring vendors: Multiple customer requests for VPATs can persuade vendors to engage meaningfully with accessibility and incorporate accessibility best practices into product development.
  • Helping with purchasing decisions: VPATs provide information about areas of non-conformance to help with buying decisions and choosing the product that “best meets” accessibility standards.
  • Providing details for workarounds: VPATs provide details to work out a plan for providing an equally effective alternate for any features that are not accessible.

In May 2020 I started an informal research project that I call “Accessibility Buyer.” When I am looking into a product for a task or project, I ask the vendor for a VPAT. I start with an email to the main “help” or “sales” email address with the message, “I’m looking for accessible platforms for [product type, e.g., virtual events]. Do you have a VPAT or other documentation of conformance with accessibility standards?” From there, I see what happens.

As an accessibility buyer, my primary objective for asking for a VPAT is not to verify that the product conforms to standards before buying or adopting it. Realistically, very few, if any, digital products fully conform to accessibility standards. I want to know whether the vendor is gaming their customers or taking accessibility seriously.

A vendor’s response to a request for accessibility conformance documentation reveals evidence of their engagement with accessibility, and their willingness to work with their customers to support people with disabilities. Will they own their role? Or will they effectively shirk their responsibilities?

Avoiding responsibility

In some cases, vendors play a game of hide-and-seek, and are quick to say, “Not it!”

In September 2020 I was exploring time tracking tools. I had gotten into the habit of tracking time at my previous job. After initially resisting the idea, I came around to kind of enjoying it. Among other tools, we had used Tick and Harvest, and I liked the simplicity of these tools and their features. I started by asking Harvest for documentation of conformance with accessibility standards, and their reply was:

We don’t have a VPAT or any similar documentation, I’m afraid. As a small company with limited resources, we must leave it to you to determine whether our products meet the requisite level of accessibility you need.

The idea of a “requisite level” of accessibility is concerning; there is little ambiguity about employment and non-discrimination. I had expected vendors in this space to be building accessibility into their systems, but the statement about size and limited resources set off alarm bells. Have they not addressed accessibility in design and development? Or have they addressed accessibility but are too small and under-resourced to evaluate and document conformance? Tick also did not provide a VPAT, although they did report attention to accessibility: “We do our best to follow all W3C guidelines for web accessibility to make sure Tick is accessible to everyone.”

Accessibility is a market differentiator for technology vendors. Especially in sectors that have clearly defined obligations, such as employment, education, justice, transportation, vendors should be stepping forward and providing documentation to their customers who need accessible technology to meet their obligations, if for no other reason than that it makes good business sense. Since neither vendor provided the documentation that I needed to make an informed decision, both lost my business.

In December 2020 I revisited my approach to content authoring and publishing. I use WordPress and Medium to post articles, but I had not asked these vendors about the accessibility features of their platforms. I started by asking Medium for documentation of conformance with accessibility standards, and their reply was:

At this time, we do not have any publicly available accessibility reports or statements. You will need to work directly with your compliance team to determine if Medium is acceptable for your uses.

According to this reply, Medium’s customers are on their own in making sure people with disabilities are included in authoring, publishing, and accessing content. To meet accessibility policy and legal requirements, customers must evaluate Medium’s conformance with accessibility standards and then decide whether areas of nonconformance are acceptable. The response does not provide evidence of engagement with accessibility or openness to addressing accessibility issues with the platform.

I moved my articles off of Medium and onto my WordPress site, not because WordPress has accessibility conformance wrapped up, but because they engage with the topic. They provide guidance on accessible content authoring, and they are open to discussion. When I asked about documentation of the WordPress platform, their response was, “We do not have documentation covering our own accessibility features, but if you have questions about anything in particular please let us know!”

In looking for a healthy partnership between customer and vendor, “Let us know” is much better than “You figure it out.”

Being part of the solution

The good news is that some technology vendors own accessibility in their products and work to address areas of nonconformance with accessibility standards.

In Spring 2020 I started looking at accessibility in platforms and tools for virtual meetings and events. Over the next months I contacted several vendors to ask for a VPAT and received responses with varying levels of detail and helpfulness. Sched did not provide a VPAT but reported that they are working to address accessibility issues. Attendify reported, “We do not have such documentation, and we have not got a chance to properly test our platform for accessibility.” Eventbrite, Virtual Summits, and Pheedloop did not respond at all. Zoom, on the other hand, was a standout.

First of all, Zoom has an Accessibility page with details about accessibility features, and accessibility conformance reports. I didn’t have to ask for a VPAT, but instead downloaded and reviewed the reports. The VPATs include several areas of nonconformance, and I wanted to learn about Zoom’s plans to address those issues. I emailed their accessibility email address and asked whether the VPATs were up to date and what plans they had to address accessibility. Their reply was:

Thanks for reaching out to Zoom Accessibility. The newest Zoom Application update (version 5.3.0) was released over the weekend. We are planning on posting the updated VPATs in the next week when we make updates to our accessibility website. I’ve attached the VPATs for mobile and desktop to this email. We are committed to fixing showstopper violations and have added comments in the VPATs to show our plan. If you feel there are any exceptions that need to be escalated please let us know.

As for our roadmap, we have a few items that I can share with you:

    • Addition of more alerts to the Customizable Screen Reader Alert section in the Accessibility Settings
    • Supporting F6 navigation to navigate between major application regions
    • Live Transcription (ASR) for live Zoom Meetings

Zoom’s proactive approach to accessibility and credible accessibility conformance reports are a breath of fresh air! Even though their VPATs include areas of nonconformance, their responsiveness and plans to address accessibility issues and add features make me feel comfortable sticking with Zoom for virtual meetings and events.

Working together to address accessibility barriers

Access to technology is a human right under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Access to technology is a civil right, legislated by equality and civil rights laws in many countries. Products that do not follow accessibility standards may limit or block access to technology, violating human and civil rights of people with disabilities.

As technology customers, we must rely on vendors to address accessibility in product development. Otherwise we risk discriminating against people with disabilities—an employee reporting hours, a writer submitting an article, a reader accessing a story, a speaker or participant at a virtual event. We must use our buying power to ask for what we need from technology vendors.

  1. Start with a simple message to the vendor’s help or contact email, asking, “Do you have a VPAT or other documentation of conformance with accessibility standards?”
  2. If the reply does not include accessibility documentation, respond with something along the lines of, “My company has a policy that requires conformance with accessibility standards. Without documentation, it’s difficult to move forward with your product.”
  3. If the vendor shares documentation that has areas of nonconformance, respond with, “For the items marked ‘Partially supports’ or ‘Does not support,’ can you share your accessibility roadmap, with plans for addressing those issues?”

A VPAT isn’t a guarantee of product accessibility. But by asking a vendor for a VPAT and following up for details, we open the door to working together to understand and address accessibility barriers.

If you are a technology vendor, own accessibility in your products, document conformance with accessibility standards, and work continuously to address areas of nonconformance. Don’t play accessibility hide-and-seek. Your customers may give up on the game, and your products, while you’re hiding.