Accessible Technology: A Call for More than the “Minimum” in Federal Contracts

In the early months of the Biden Administration, the federal government contracting world has received significant attention. While it is generally well-known that the government uses private sector contracts for innovative products and services, federal contracts are now being used as the catalyst to drive important policy changes in areas including racial equity, climate change, and most recently, cybersecurity.

It makes sense that the administration is leveraging federal contract requirements as a first step toward achieving important governmentwide policy outcomes. Private sector companies can generally adapt to new requirements, policies, and practices with an agility not found in bureaucratic federal agencies. Additionally, in many instances, the private sector is already voluntarily investing in technologies and reforms that promote better outcomes within companies’ own ranks.

Accessible technology is an important example. Many employees living with disabilities rely on internet-, hardware-, and software-based accessibility solutions to help empower them in their workplaces. Although minimum U.S.-based and international legal standards exist for accessible technologies, determining whether a product will fully meet employees’ needs can be challenging. ITI, through our members, created the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) to address this problem by helping government contractors and other users assess technology solutions for people with disabilities. The VPAT helps report assessments of conformance to multiple international standards, and ITI recently issued a series of training modules for both buyers and sellers using the VPAT. ITI offers the VPAT tools and training modules on our website free of charge to the public.

While some government buyers already consider VPAT as part of their contract award determinations, more can be done to prioritize accessibility in the acquisition strategy itself. For example, the federal government has significant discretion in defining the selection criteria for contract awards, including deciding how much weight to give price versus non-price factors (e.g., technical capability, past performance, security, and accessibility) when evaluating competing vendor proposals. Government buyers are not limited to purchasing the lowest-priced solution but can and should use tools like VPAT to assess meaningful distinctions between competing products and, whenever possible, award contracts to vendors offering solutions that exceed minimum requirements for accessibility.

As the administration pledges to modernize government IT systems, and leverage private sector expertise to advance that effort among its other policy goals, ITI is a committed partner in ensuring its solutions support the technology needs of the entire government workforce and the public—including people living with disabilities.

Public Policy Tags: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Accessibility