GOALS Cost Case Study
This report provides the experiences of 6 institutions of higher education and some of the costs they incurred as they worked to improve accessibility on their campus. So what did we learn by these case studies?
- Cost to litigate: There can be fiscal consequences when an institution allows their web-based content to be inaccessible to those with disabilities. In this instance, a student who was blind alleged that the institution’s online math course was not accessible. As part of the agreement, the institution was required to reimburse the advocacy group over $800,000 for legal costs, expenses, and damages to the plaintiff. These costs only represented the pre-trial discovery portion of the case. Non-dollar costs absorbed by the institution (e.g., multiple meetings across key leaders, loss of staff and faculty time and productivity, travel to depositions) were not included in these calculations. Nor was the cost of the social loss to the student who left without completing a degree. One feature of the settlement was the requirement that the institution make their entire web presence accessible, another cost to not detailed here. It is typically preferable for an institution to take enterprise-wide web accessibility into their own hands and timelines, rather than as a consequence of external forces. In this case, it was not an option.
- Cost to retrofit: The institution in this case study estimated the costs to retrofit 1,159 inaccessible distance education courses. This cost study provided useful information on the resources that may be required for planning large scale retrofits in higher education today. While retrofitting is not ideal, it is the reality for many institutions new to web accessibility. Borrowing methodology from Farr, Studier, Sipes, and Coombs (2009)i they reviewed 6 courses (i.e., 2 simple, 2 moderate, and 2 complex) to estimate what it would take for each course to become accessible. Multiplying the known personnel costs with the given time estimates, they produced a dollar amount range representing what it would take to fix courses by different types of faculties. It is interesting that their estimates are in line with those provided in the Farr,et al. study. Yet since they borrowed some estimates and methodology perhaps it should not be a surprise. They estimated it would cost between $214 to $480 to retrofit each simple course, and between $1,670 to $7,888 to retrofit each moderately complex course. Due to proprietary elements within the courses that could not be fixed natively, the institution was unable to estimate the true cost to fix complex courses, however they did provide a range of what they could fix. This was between $540 to $3,347 for each complex course. They did note that because they were unable to retrofit complex courses, most would have to be treated as a classic accommodation.
- Costs of captioning: Captioning rich media is often viewed as the largest strain on an accessibility budget. In this case study we learned the costs of post-production captioning at an institution using using 3 different practices (i.e., campus produced, vendor, and vendor rush job). Institutional staff collected the costs of captioning by all colleges on their campus over 3 semesters. They found that it cost the same for their Disability Resource Center to generate a transcript and sync it with the media as it did for a vendor to do the job; the cost was $1.90 per minute. This provides them with a genuine choice to outsource or employ local individuals to complete the work, or possibly both if demand for captioning outstrips local capacity. Not surprisingly, they also found that the most expensive captioning option was using a vendor to create the transcript and sync the media when a rush job was needed; this was $2.90 per minute. Planning ahead for captioning will save resources. They also reported the total costs for 5 colleges within the institution to provide captioning of web-based media over a 3-semester timeframe. The two main findings were that (1) there was great variability of the need to caption across semesters and colleges, and (2) the aggregate costs appeared reasonable. The total cost for any single college across all 3 semesters ranged from $190 to $3,369. The aggregate total for all 5 colleges during the 3-term period was $6,199.
- Cost to retrofit an open source LMS: This case study showed how making accessibility changes within a core institutional technology (i.e., Moodle) has the potential for broad impact in ways that can be fairly immediate and flexible. The costs to the institution were under $25,000. When amortized across all registered students with disabilities the fix cost $23. It should be noted that this figure assumes the fix to be used during only one semester, yet the likelihood is greater that it would be used across successive semesters, reducing the per student cost. The case study also uncovered the dilemma of making changes that are not incorporated into the application’s core. Each time an update was made to the LMS, institutional staff would have to implement their accessibility changes all over again. This institution has since moved to a model where they are active in the formal LMS accessibility group so that all changes are made to the core application. Doing so has enabled them to spend less time and resources, yet have a voice in the direction of the working group so that their institutional pain points can be addressed. The trade off, however, has been slower turnaround in their accessibility fixes as they wait for formal updates with the needed changes.
- Cost of making group accessibility procurements: In this case study, a state system of higher education displayed the power of group purchases, and they added in-system contracting of accessibility improvements to produce large cost savings. The state system purchased, and subsequently improved, accessibility evaluation software over the course of a year. Because they did this together as a system, rather than each institution engaging separately, they saved nearly a million dollars compared to each institution purchasing a separate license and making the same improvements. The fact that the system has central coordination for accessibility purposes made the coordinated procurements possible. In a climate where every dollar must be maximized, this is an important lesson. Also, students used during the campus subcontracts provided not only an added cost savings, but were provided with authentic experiences in which they could use real-life knowledge and skills, and learn more about accessibility.
- Cost to establish a procurement review process: Part of the challenge for an institution to acquire accessible goods and services is to ensure that accessibility is part of product review before purchase. In higher education, this means that it must be built into the procedures. This case study showed how a modest investment of resources (i.e., under $18,000) helped to create an accessibility product review that was integrated with other campus purchasing needs (i.e., to review security, networking, and integration needs along with accessibility needs). The costs to an institution for not purchasing accessible products can be very high. One interesting item reported in this case study was that while they began with a $2,000 purchasing threshold to initiate a formal purchasing process and product review, it has now gone to $0. This institution realized that freeware and very inexpensive software can be used so broadly, that failure to include accessibility determinations could have widespread negative consequences for the institution. One benefit to including accessibility reviews into the wider product review process was that accessibility personnel had opportunities to sit on a committee with key members of the central IT community. This experience helped forge important relationships and awareness of accessibility issues by IT personnel that may not have otherwise occurred.
“This cost study provided useful information on the resources that may be required for planning large scale retrofits in higher education today.”
“Captioning rich media is often viewed as the largest strain on an accessibility budget.”
“A state system of higher education displayed the power of group purchases, and they added in-system contracting of accessibility improvements to produce large cost savings.”
As we executed the cost case studies, several issues emerged worthy of sharing with others. Our experience gathering data was similar to that reported by the Technositeii group, in that we ended up with only about half of the sample we thought would result. These losses occurred during the period of data collection. This may signal that there are difficulties in diary-based data collection that should be addressed in future methodology. We know that prospective data is much harder to secure than estimates or retrospection, yet it is more accurate and is exactly what is needed in the field now. Perhaps providing clear monetary incentives to complete time diaries would be necessary? Perhaps projects that included partnerships would be helpful as funding would flow to each partner to complete their role? We collected our information in a relatively short time frame, and our snapshots are a reflection of that. Future studies should consider if they want to collect costs over longer periods, thereby collecting a broader picture. In the final analysis, we echo the main finding of Technosite, that greater systematic study using prospective data is needed.
As others study and report on costs of web accessibility in higher education, we hope that detailed descriptions of both institutional context and institutional practices are reported. There are many other practices that can affect cost, and we would expect to see variability in the cost of accessibility as one considers institutional differences (e.g., size, degree to which centralization predominates, degree to which staff have skills to make designs and content accessible) as well as they ways in which accessibility is executed across campuses. The field will benefit if both contextual variability and accessibility practices are described in detail and included in cost descriptions of the future. Of course what is needed in the field now is a body of data to include not only details of costs, but also comparisons of costs, cost efficiencies, and cost effectiveness of accessibility overall.
“The field will benefit if both contextual variability and accessibility practices are described in detail and included in cost descriptions of the future.”
We know that these case studies provide early information that others will use and build upon. We hope to see a time in the near future when prospective cost data informs decisions made in higher education.