Choosing Accessible Technology Products: A Guide for Higher Education

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Fewer than 10% of websites today are accessible.¹ Yet in America alone, 19.4% of the population is disabled. This is a huge population of individuals who may be left out by inaccessible technology.²

image of purchase order

If you source or procure technology products or services for a college, university, or vocational school, your employer will likely ask you – if they haven’t already – to evaluate the digital accessibility of potential vendors and what they’re selling. The problem is, if you aren’t an accessibility expert, you probably aren’t sure how to do that. How will you assess the vendors and make a recommendation?

This is a common scenario across the country. Higher-education institutions are striving to improve accessibility both on campus and across their digital properties. There are multiple reasons for doing so:

  • to level the playing field for students and staff with disabilities
  • to better serve people of all abilities
  • to meet their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and other accessibility laws

Because of these efforts, employees in higher-education procurement departments and/or disability and accessibility offices are increasingly being tasked with evaluating the accessibility of digital products and services. These could include learning management systems, content management systems, payroll software and other types of software commonly used in higher education. Today, this also frequently includes the use of mobile devices in addition to traditional computing technology.

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Making accessibility evaluation a routine part of the procurement process will help your institution meet its goals for inclusion as well as comply with its legal obligations.

What is Digital Accessibility?

Digital accessibility, also referred to as web accessibility, means that the content of websites, mobile apps and other digital tools and technologies is designed and developed to be accessible for people with various disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive and neurological disabilities.³ “Content” includes information such as text, sounds and images, and the code or markup that defines a website structure.4

Students who are blind or have low vision, for example, often use screen-reading or screen-magnification technology. Too often, websites or applications are designed in such a way that these technologies don’t work well, and students can’t access the content. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing can’t use videos that don’t have captioning or transcripts. Students with physical disabilities may not be able to input commands using a conventional mouse, and they need websites with full keyboard support.

When it comes to mobile devices, students with limited mobility may not be able to use screen features such as pinching or swiping. Students with limited vision may not be able to review smaller text on screens.

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The most widely accepted technical specifications for digital accessibility are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international network of accessibility experts who are aiming to make the internet as inclusive as possible.

On June 5, 2018, W3C recommended WCAG 2.1 as its platform for accessibility guidance. Like WCAG 2.0, WCAG 2.1 has three conformance levels: A, AA, and AAA. However, WCAG 2.0 Level AA addresses most major accessibility issues, and remains the standard required by the authorities that enforce the ADA, Section 508, and other accessibility laws. Content that adheres to WCAG 2.1 is also compliant with WCAG 2.0.

The success criteria of WCAG 2.0 include, for example, providing text alternatives for non-text content so that it can be used in other forms (large print, simpler language, speech, etc.); providing alternatives for time-based media such as pre-recorded audio-only content; avoiding content that may cause seizures; and ensuring that color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information.

WCAG 2.1 does not modify the success criteria included in WCAG 2.0, but does add new success criteria deemed important for emerging technology standards. It is currently recommended for companies seeking to improve their compliance, but it does not replace WCAG 2.0 in terms of 508 compliance. WCAG 2.1 addresses the fact that people are now accessing digital information through a variety of platforms, including mobile devices, and thus includes a subset of recommendations for mobile accessibility.

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What Do Procurement Staff Need to Know?

Procurement departments and disability offices do not need to become experts in the criteria of WCAG 2.0 – the guidelines were mainly written for web content developers and related professions. However, it’s helpful to have a general understanding of WCAG 2.0 and the accessibility laws that apply to higher-education institutions. This will help you ask potential vendors about their level of compliance. While WCAG 2.0 is the currently required standard, companies should strongly consider maintaining WCAG 2.1 compliance.

Questions to Ask Vendors

  1. Do you have a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), the document that evaluates a product according to widely accepted accessibility standards?
  2. Are you using VPAT 2.3, which is up to date with the technical requirements of WCAG 2.1?
  3. Do you have a compliance or accessibility statement that demonstrates your commitment to accessibility?
  4. Have you worked with any third parties to have your products tested for accessibility? If so, can you share the test reports?
  5.  Has your company ever had its website, application(s) and other products tested for accessibility, including manual and functional tests performed by people who have disabilities?
  6.  Is your company WCAG 2.1 compliant? If so, to what level?
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If a vendor answers “no” to any of these questions, you could recommend that they contact an accessibility-as-a-service company, preferably one with expertise in higher education and vendor engagement processes. This will help to raise awareness about the digital accessibility needs of the higher-education market, with the hope that vendors will modify their products and create new ones with compliance in mind.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.


  1. ‘Web Accessibility Guidelines’ turn 10 but still less than 10% of sites are accessible AbilityNet, Dec 2018
  2. Basic Facts: People with Disabilities
  3. What is Web Accessibility W3C, 2018
  4. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview W3C, 2018


Editor’s Note: This post was updated in September 2019 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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