Let the Buyer be Aware: The Importance of Procurement in Accessibility Policy

Contents

The Importance of Policy

Creating Web accessibility policy has become a common approach taken by education institutions and others (e.g., local, state, and federal government agencies, and businesses). These organizations want to ensure accessibility for all their constituents (e.g., clients, users and staffs) including those with disabilities. Often this is because organizations see the value in accessibility for (1) ethical, (2) business, or (3) legal reasons. Policy then becomes a mechanism to realize the commitment or obligation the organization has to an accessible Web presence.

Establishing policy provides recognition that system reform does not occur in a vacuum. Moreover, policy assures that access is to be equal across the entire system, rather than at the discretion of individuals within the system.  Finally, policy helps align organizational resources to accomplish newly defined priorities. In the case of Web accessibility, it can be a complex issue in part because of the shear size of the problem.  Moreover, the presence of a policy can act as a demonstration of a good faith effort to comply with applicable statues (e.g., Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state laws).

Creating Policy

Sample Web accessibility policies in higher education:

There are many resources available to those who want to create policy. First, there are groups, such as WebAIM who have published a model of coordination and system reform that is rooted in policy development. This 8-step model has been used in both postsecondary and K-12 education systems. Other resources include tools that step the user through creating policy appropriate for their context (i.e., the ITTATC Policy and Standards Construction Tool). Still other resources include entities that have already created their policy and have it available to view online. Compilations of policies in education, or policy attempts are available in many places. For example:

In education, current Web accessibility efforts are gaining in both strength and depth of articulated policy. Momentum is increasing as more educational entities choose a policy route to ensure access for all. Looking at samples of existing policy, we get a glimpse into the relative strength and weakness of the current state of Web accessibility in higher education. Many institutions provide very good models that others can use. Highly detailed policy elements include: (1) the overall scope of the policy; (2) the accessibility standard itself; (3) the implementation plan, or roll-out, of the policy; (3) communication and support with staff and faculty; and (4) consequences for not following policy.

What is the missing link?

With all of these policy models and resources available, one would think that establishing an effective policy would be easy to do and result in good outcomes. However, even with policies in place, many institutions are finding it difficult to keep to their own standard. While a solid path is laid down in the form of accessibility policies, a giant pothole working against policy grows.

Most policies in education focus exclusively on the practices of in-house Web development professionals. Few institutions are looking at the Web content and Web-based applications that come to them from other sources (e.g., content management systems, finance systems, student information systems, healthcare or benefit systems, human resource systems). So, what is missing in current policy? A mechanism to procure accessible Web products and services is missing. Without procurement as part of the policy, true system-level accessibility can only be an illusion. This is because a solid policy must look at both the internal and external forces that create problems of, and solutions for, accessibility.

The importance of procurement in accessibility policy

One of the most brilliant aspects of the federal implementation of the Section 508 regulation for accessible electronic information technology was that procurement was tied into the process. From the very beginning, federal agencies were required to procure, use, and maintain accessible goods and services. When faced with a purchasing decision where no product was wholly accessible, the 508 regulation dictated that an agency buy the "most" accessible product. This new regulation sent vendors scurrying to become that "most" accessible product so they could continue business with the U.S. Federal government, and maybe take business away from less accessible competitors. Vendors all across the country had to respond to the new federal government procurement policies on accessibility. The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (i.e., VPAT) was created by the vendor community and used as a way to communicate the accessibility of their product with agency procurement officers who would make purchasing decisions based, in part, on the accessibility documentation provided to them. (Search VPAT in Google for a sample.) Although the use of the VPAT has, at times, come under fire for its lack of independence (i.e., it is created by the vendor, not a third party), it has helped vendors focus their development efforts. In large measure it is the accessible procurement policies of the federal government that have created the gains made in product accessibility in a relatively short period of time. Nobody doubts that part of this success is due to a procurement process that requires accessibility be considered.

Why accessible procurement is so important

Procurement of accessible goods and services is important for at least 2 reasons. First, it is a more efficient way to get to the end goal of policy, which is accessibility of all organizationally owned or used Web content. It simply makes sense that if you want to transform the accessibility of a large and complex system, the most efficient way to do this is to work simultaneously from the inside out (e.g., Web professionals at the organization) and the outside in (e.g., purchased goods and services from others). Failing to recognize both forces at work will result in ineffective system change. Second, including accessibility into procurement makes sense from a fiscal standpoint. Since vendors are the ones who make decisions about their product, isn't it reasonable that they would be the ones who ultimately decide to implement accessibility in their products? In this way the responsibility lies with the ones who have the control to make product decisions.

Moreover, there is precedence for adding specifications or stipulations into procurement contracts and requests for proposals. For example, try to imagine an education institution that would hire an architect or contractor to construct a building that was not physically accessible. Why is this an unlikely scenario? Because it is the obligation of the education entity to provide access to individuals. Since it is their legal responsibility it will become their fiscal responsibility to correct the results of a poor procurement contract (i.e., an inaccessible building). Although campuses would have the manpower and technical expertise to widen doorways, install elevators, or pour ramps, this type of workflow would be seen as fiscally irresponsible. The scenario of purchasing electronic and information technology is the same. Education entities could choose to purchase inaccessible systems (e.g., a course management system, student information system, campus finance, or human resource system), but then they will have to pay for accommodations required by the user. When accessibility requirements are part of the vendor's responsibility, the resulting deliverable will require much less work to make it operable for all individuals.

Recognizing the positive fiscal impact that procurement can have on overall accessibility policies may be hidden to a certain extent because budgets of large entities (e.g., postsecondary education) often exist in silos with little communication across those silos. While the Purchasing Office may feel that they have secured a deal on an institutional license for a product, those in charge of a Disability Office on campus may have to use their budget to make costly accommodations; at the end of the day it was not a good deal for the university at all. Good communication between these two offices is crucial for the institution to actualize real savings.  It may be that purchasing would benefit from the establishment of an electronic information task force to include representation from the Disability Office and the Technology or Computing Services Office when purchases that affect the Web are considered.

The recent history of Section 508 implementation into federal agencies provides a useful roadmap for the rest of us. The procurement policies set in place by the federal government, although not perfect, created market-driven forces in the accessibility of electronic information products. The fact is that many Web products can be purchased in an accessible form now or could be altered if only someone would ask. For those vendors that do not yet have an accessible product line, it may be that nobody has asked them to produce accessible versions. When staff members from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education have approached vendors who do not yet have accessible products, the most common response they provide is they do not have requests from clients for accessibility. Thus, when making development decisions, accessibility may not even be on their radar. If we want to purchase accessible products, we must first ask the vendors to produce them. Later we must demand them. If we don't, we cannot complain about our inability to achieve true accessibility results; the ultimate goal of accessibility policy.

Suggested process

Those in education who would like to add procurement systems into their policy may be unfamiliar with ways to approach this task. A threefold process is suggested:

  1. Conduct a meeting with stakeholders to discuss the procurement process, determine needs, discuss timelines and make assignments. Typical stakeholders would include personnel from purchasing or procurement offices, the disability office, technology or computing office, individuals who have content expertise in accessibility, legal counsel and an administrator who can support this effort.
  2. Have the team (above) create a list of documents that will include accessibility statements and be used across procurement procedures. These requirements must be aligned with the accessibility standard chosen (e.g., Section 508, WCAG 1.0 priority AA). For example the team could create one document that would be incorporated into requests for proposals, one for licensing contracts, one for purchasing contracts and so on. Whatever the final list of documents, make sure that legal counsel has had an opportunity to give feedback or approval on their use. Samples of procurement language that could be added are provided in the section below
  3. Have the team determine the best way to assist the purchasing, or contract, agent in their assessment of the accessibility of products to be purchased. Just because you have added accessibility language to procurement, the job is not complete. How many purchasing agents would be able to compare vendor claims of accessibility? Technical support and assistance must be provided to purchasing to aide them while they gather information from contract competitors. Support such as this can often be found from the very group that initiated the organizational Web accessibility policy, as this group typically contains technical personnel skilled in accessibility. Ongoing communication across offices is the key.

Samples of procurement language

Although it is important that any contract language is reviewed by legal counsel, the following represent three samples of procurement language that can be added to enhance accessibility of purchased or licensed products. In these samples, the Section 508 standard is used. Of course any group would want to align their own accessibility standard to what is required of the vendors. These samples represent (1) requests for proposals, (2) purchasing contracts of specific products, and (3) purchasing procedures used for general purchasing:

Three samples of procurement language to enhance accessibility efforts:

Sample 1: Contained in a Request for Proposal

NOTICE -- All electronic and information technology (EIT) procured through this RFP must meet the applicable accessibility standards of 36 CFR 1194. 36 CFR 1194 implements Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and is viewable at the following URL: http://www.section508.gov The following Section 508 technical standards are applicable to this RFP, as a minimum: " Software Applications and Operating Systems (1194.21)" Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications (1194.22) " Video or Multimedia Products (1194.24) C.4 Applicants must state their level of compliance to applicable sections to be considered for purchase under this RFP.

Sample 2: Purchasing contracts of specific products

Vendors must ensure that the course management system contained in the proposal fully conforms with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1998.  (For information on Section 508 see www.section508.gov). This includes both the student and instructor views and also includes all interaction tools (e.g., chats, discussion forums), and add-ons (e.g., grade functions). Vendors must declare if any portion of the version under consideration does not fully conform to Section 508, and the ways in which the proposed product is out of compliance.

Sample 3: Purchasing procedures used for general purchasing

To ensure the procurement of Section 508 compliant products and services, the procurement officer shall ask the vendor whether the product or solution is Section 508 compliant, and if so, the vendor must provide Section 508 compliance audit or test results that document the testing methodology utilized to determine the product or solution's compliance and the results of the accessibility audit.  It is also important for the procurement officer to note whether the testing was conducted by the vendor or whether an independent third party auditor was retained.

 Remember that in this age of information technology and accessibility let the buyer be AWARE, of both their action and inaction. Adding a simple element, such as procurement policies, can have an enormous and lasting impact.