I get several emails per month from Government Contractors looking for help writing a VPAT document. Chances are this is the result of good SEO on my blog post Why a Third Party Should Prepare Your VPAT. Unfortunately a lot of these contacts follow this pattern:
Hi Karl, I’m from XYZPDQ Corp. and we’re getting ready to submit an RFP response to the ABC Agency and they’re asking us for a VPAT. The responses are due in 3 days. Can you help us?
I got 3 such emails this past week, one of which on Sunday, with a due date for their proposal being, apparently, that evening.
The short answer to this is “No”.
There’s another point that needs to be made, however, about why this is a really really bad idea. If someone tells you they can turn around a VPAT in that amount of time, RUN. They are going to risk not only the contract but possibly a load more.
Why turning around a VPAT in a hurry is a horrible idea
Everything I said in the original posting is still true.
- Preparing a VPAT requires extensive knowledge of Section 508
- The information in the VPAT must be based on comprehensive review
- The information in the VPAT should be as objective and unbiased as possible
- The VPAT becomes part of the procurement
First, the kind of person with enough skills to fill out a VPAT correctly does not have the time to interrupt whatever they’re doing to write up a VPAT . This is especially true since accurately writing the document needs to be based on a comprehensive review. The time to write the VPAT itself might only be a day (or less) but that’s only after the comprehensive review. Depending on the nature of the product, that comprehensive review may take days or even weeks.
The last point in the list above is the most important one. When you submit the VPAT as part of your proposal, it becomes part of it. It should tell you something that when VPATs are filled out at companies like Oracle, they are all reviewed by lawyers before they’re able to be used.
Many people believe that Section 508 requires the government to ensure all of its ICT is accessible. This is a bit of an un-nuanced perspective. Section 508 declares that the government purchase the most accessible product that meets business needs. If there’s only one product that meets business needs and is horribly inaccessible, Section 508 doesn’t prevent them from buying.
Given the above, imagine the following scenario: The government issues an RFP for a type of software that multiple vendors can provide. You submit your response and it includes a VPAT that declares a very high level of compliance with Section 508’s technical provisions. All other things being equal, the agency chooses your product over the competition due to your product’s higher level of accessibility. There’s only one problem: your VPAT isn’t accurate. Come time to deploy the software throughout the agency, it turns out that blind employees can’t use the software at all. Now what happens?
There are a couple of ways that could play out, and most of them are very unpleasant.
- The agency can cancel the contract
- The agency can refuse to extend the contract when it comes time to renew
- The agency can sue you to compel you to meet the claims of your VPAT
Of course there’s always the chance that nothing happens. That depends on the size of the contract and amount of impact the non-compliant system has on the agency. One thing is for sure, once the agency starts getting complaints from employees, you’re going to have a headache on your hands that won’t go away.
Still need the VPAT in a hurry?
I definitely understand the need to get your RFP submission in on time. At this point, you’re probably the only person with the necessary product knowledge to fill out the document. I recommend that whatever you do, you’re honest in your response. Here are some hints.
- Do not claim your product “Fully Supports” a provision unless you know for a fact that it does. “Fully Supports” should be reserved for cases where you know that the provision applies and that your product meets all requirements for conformance.
- If you have any evidence that your product doesn’t support 100% of the requirements (but supports some) then the answer is “Partially Supports”. Add comments to disclose the problems you’re aware of.
- If you have any evidence that your product fails the requirement (or fails more than it meets) then the answer is “Does not support”. Again, add comments to disclose the problems you’re aware of.
- If you know that a provision does not apply at all, the answer is “N/A”
In the explanations column, provide honest, concise information to backup your support claim. If you don’t know the answer or don’t understand the requirements for a provision, you’ll need to craft an honest declaration of this rather than make something up.
Final word on your urgent VPAT
Honesty, transparency, and accuracy are the key to avoiding problems. Your next step is to find someone to do an informed assessment and write an accurate VPAT. Do it now instead of waiting until the last minute.