Creative Captioning for Increased Web Accessibility: Win, Win with Strategies Designed to Decrease Costs and Improve Outcomes

Linda Goetze

GOALS staff conducted focus groups with postsecondary institutions across the country over the past year around issues related to ensuring web accessibility. These focus groups typically included staff from Disability Student Services, Human Resources, Instructional Technology, the Library, web developer, central administration, and at least one individual with a disability. Of the many challenges mentioned, providing captioned media to students who are Deaf or hard of hearing surfaced as a significant concern. Campuses are working to develop ways to both deliver caption media and determine how to pay for it. Every campus identified the cost as a significant challenge as captioning is expensive and time consuming to provide. Increased demand for captioned content has incentivized many institutions to create new models that may lower these costs. Alternative funding models have also been implemented that place funding at the school or college level rather than at the faculty or department level.

Cost of Captioned Media

As the use of media as a teaching tool in the classroom has increased, so has the demand for captioning, and as the demand for captioning increases, the cost to caption is increasingly important to institutions of higher education. Captioning can be very costly. Multiple steps are involved, often beginning with getting copyright permission to caption the material, a process that itself may take months and may require an alternative plan for the content. To caption legally and accurately, readily available, qualified staff are needed to ensure timely and high quality service to faculty and departments. On the high end, campuses are reporting that an hour of video may take up to 10 hours of staff time to caption.

Three Approaches to Captioning

Several institutions have shared with us how they are dealing with the issue of captioning. For example, a model some institutions are using to reduce and contain costs is to create a centralized source of in-house staff to do captioning for multiple campuses or institutions within a system or network. Sharing captioning resources from a central, in-house source is one model developed to lower costs and increase capacity. A challenge to this strategy is developing adequate captioning staff that can respond quickly during periods of peak demand and caption the content in time for it to be used by those who benefit from it.

Another model combines in-house captioning with a competent off-campus firm that can be contracted to caption when on-campus captioning staff is in short supply. The off-campus firm is able to caption even long video content quickly. However this often comes at a higher cost than in-house staff that are trained and employed to caption.

Third, some institutions outsource captioning altogether. They issue an RFP to seek competitive bids for their off-campus captioning services in an attempt to get lower bulk prices for comprehensive service.

Some Captioning Strategies to Caption Efficiently and Effectively

We are learning a great deal about how others tackle this difficult situation. Here is a list of ideas for your institution to consider:

An Innovative Model for Funding Captioned Media

While delivering captioned media is a challenge, determining who pays for it is equally challenging. Many campuses centralize funding for classroom accommodations in the disability resource center (DRC) budget. Captioned media presents an unusual twist in this conventional model. Unlike the conversion of print to audio or note taking services used exclusively by students with disabilities, the captioned media product remains the property of the faculty or department, not the student. Additionally, captioned media is “searchable” and can enhance learning outcomes for everyone, especially people with limited English proficiency, extending the value of media beyond accessibility.

One of the more innovative funding policies identified at one of our Cost Study institutions distributed the fiscal responsibility more broadly to ensure accessibility of web content across campus. While this policy pertains to funding to make all web content accessible, the biggest impact seen thus far is with captioned media.

Originally, the cost of providing captioned media resided with the individual faculty member and the departmental budget the faculty had available. Given the variability of individual departmental budgets, and the limited discretionary funds many smaller departments have, faculty members were unable to pay the costs to produce captioned media. Consequences for students included but were not limited to relying on an interpreter to simultaneously sign the audio, relying on FM systems or other amplification devices, or having the student go without access at all. In some cases, faculty chose to not use any media at all for a semester.

The institution's Disability Resource Center (DRC) worked closely with the Vice Chancellor of Administration to create a new policy whereby payment responsibility for all accessible media now “involves the program, school or college [where] the student is enrolled.” This college funding policy covers all course web content but has been particularly significant in shifting the cost for captioning from the faculty/department to the colleges whose budgets contain more discretionary funding sources that can be put to variable expenses like captioned media.

This is a clear change from the days when the DRC was expected to cover the cost of captioning for media in courses across campus. DRC staff is still involved in making sure that eligible students receive those accommodations but they no longer cover the cost of making web content accessible for students. DRC staff track course enrollment for students needing captioned media and contact faculty teaching those classes to determine if there is web content requiring accommodation. These staff then manages the process to make sure that videos and other media are accessible. This often entails sending the media out to be captioned by an external vendor. The cost is then invoiced to the college in which the course with the media resides at the end of the semester.

This funding policy accomplishes a number of objectives. It redistributes the cost from the department to the college where the department resides. Because the college budgets are larger than those available to individual departments or faculty, the relative cost of the web accessibility is more easily absorbed in the total college budget. There has been little or no resistance at the college level to this cost shifting.

It also communicates the shared responsibility of making the campus accessible rather than loading all of the fiscal costs into one center (e.g., the disability student center). The end result is that each college has a relatively small bill to pay for accessible content for courses within that college. Also, faculty retains possession of the media to be used in subsequent semesters and/or for research purposes.

There is also an important attitudinal benefit that can result from such policy change. It can minimize the potential for a faculty member to perceive a Deaf or Hard of Hearing (DHH) student as an “expensive” or burdensome student to have in a class. It also allows faculty to make full use of media in their teaching practices without being limited to using just what their individual budgets can afford. Most importantly, it decreases the likelihood that a student will not request full access to media for risk of being seen as too time consuming or a hassle for their instructors.