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Choosing Accessible Technology Products: A Guide for Higher Education

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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:

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.

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 disabilities1. “Content” includes information such as text, sounds and images, and the code or markup that defines a website structure2.

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.

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.

W3C released WCAG version 2.0 in 2008. It has three conformance levels: A, AA and AA3. Level AA, which addresses most major accessibility issues, is the standard required by the authorities that enforce the ADA, Section 508 and other accessibility laws.

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.

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.

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 2.1, which is up to date with the technical requirements of WCAG 2.0 and the revisions made to Section 508 in January 2017?
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?

If a vendor answers “no” to any of these questions, you could recommend that they contact an accessibility consulting 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.

References

  1. What is Web Accessibility W3C, 2018
  2. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview W3C, 2018
  3. Understanding Conformance W3C, 2016

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