Section 508 -- Regulations for Accessible Technology
Section 508 is the part of the Rehabilitation Act that requires the federal government's information and communication technology (ICT) to be accessible to people with disabilities. Many states, universities, local governments, etc. have adopted some version of Section 508 as part of their plan to improve accessibility. Section 508 gives public agencies a simple way to communicate about accessibility to the companies that create and sell ICT.
The Section 508 Standard
The Section 508 Standard is a collection of technical and functional provisions that apply to different types of technology, such as websites, software, computers, and phone systems. Each relevant provision may require some feature in the product, or some way to be compatible with assistive technology. For example, an image on a web page complies with one provision if it is accompanied by text describing the image, for use by a blind person with screen reader software. Taken as a whole, the provisions are intended to define what "accessibility" means, giving clear guidance about needs and solutions to everyone involved.
The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT)
The VPAT is an ICT industry document that lets the vendor report how compliant the product is with each of the relevant provisions. Some vendors post their VPATs on their websites. The request for a VPAT should be part of your procurement process, whether you do that independently, or though a government agency, library consortium, etc. Not all vendors have VPATs for all their products, and not all VPATs are equally complete. But it's a good place to start the accessibility dialogue because it lets your vendor know that accessibility is going to be a requirement, and that you are willing to use the industry standard tool for reporting.
Public agencies are beginning to share their Section 508 knowledge. The American Library Association has a Section 508 group to encourage this exchange in the library world.