Even free software needs VPATs …

A board with two cartoons: a free gift on the left and three premium badges on the right

…If you want a Section 508-regulated organization to use it.

Part 2 of a multi-part series on accessibility and open source software. Read Part 1 here.

Accessibility Myth: Free software doesn’t require VPATs. VPATS are only required when software is purchased.

Accessibility Reality: All technology a 508-regulated agency buys, builds, maintains or uses, including software, hardware, electronic content, and support documentation and services, must conform to the Revised 508 Standards

Section 508 is the regulation that all US Federal government Information and Communications Technology (ICT) purchases must comply with. In short, “I’m not charging for it, so I shouldn’t need a VPAT” is NOT the way accessibility is supposed to work.

Before you say “meh, I don’t need to read this, the US Federal government doesn’t buy anything I sell,” please note that Section 508 is what I like to call a “Jerry Maguire” regulation. It follows the federal money, and there is quite a bit of federal money to follow. Even if you don’t sell to the TSA, CIA, ATF, FBI or any other TLA (three lettered acronym) agencies, you may sell to other 508-regulated organizations including:

  • K-12 Schools
  • Universities
  • Hospitals and medical research programs
  • State governments
  • Municipalities (i.e. cities and counties)
  • Civil Service organizations (police / fire / emergency services)
  • Non-profits that receive grants directly or indirectly from the feds, such as Head Start programs or museums

Section 508 has existed for more than 15 years, but its presence has been celebrated more by both ICT buyers and sellers in violating rather than following Section 508. Frequently, Section 508 regulated buyers did one of the following:

  • didn’t ask for 508-compliant software
  • asked for 508-compliant software in the RFPs, but didn’t check bids to see if VPATs were submitted
  • asked for 508-compliant software, checked the bids, but didn’t confirm that the version in the bid matched the version of the submitted VPAT
  • asked for 508-compliant software and checked bids, made sure the versions matched, but didn’t actually verify that the software was as accessible as the VPAT claimed

Through this chronic apathy, the procurement of inaccessible software by 508-regulated organizations showed no signs of improving. Therefore, people committed to accessibility did two things:

  1. Created ART (“Accessibility Requirements Tool”) a machine learning based tool that makes sure that the regulated buyer is demanding 508-compliant software in its bids.
  2. On the other side of the transaction, employees who have been discriminated against by employers who chose inaccessible tools they couldn’t use have started very successfully suing employers who procure inaccessible software.

Not surprisingly, one you tie the hands of and/or punish the organizations who want to procure inaccessible software, the door on inaccessible, discriminatory software acquisitions seems to finally be starting to close.

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