What to look for in video accessibility vendors

By: Art Morgan
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If you are charged with ensuring that your organization’s online content is accessible, you will quickly discover that there are many possible paths to reach this goal. You will certainly need to work with outside vendors, such as closed captioning service providers, if you want to achieve WCAG 2 Level AA compliance. However, due to recent increases in enforcement of accessibility law there are now many vendors who claim to be able to help you become compliant and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish among them, aside from simply comparing prices.  As with many services and products, the cheapest option will often not be the best fit for your organization. Before you select a captioning vendor, here are a few questions to consider.

Is accessibility important to achieving your mission?

At first glance, it may seem difficult to connect accessibility to the mission or long-term goals of your organization. However, if your mission includes words like “opportunity,” “equality,” “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” “community,” “cultures,” or “society,” then accessibility is implicitly an important component of achieving your mission and strategic goals.

Without a focus on accessibility, you are excluding a large portion of qualified individuals from enjoying the benefits of your organization’s products and services. Even more importantly, if you don’t have a strong accessibility strategy in place you are preventing the people who do use your services from the benefits of interacting with a more diverse community.  By adding a strong focus on accessibility you make it easier for your organization to meet its goals of diversity, inclusiveness, and cross-cultural understanding, and you also help improve your community and society as a whole.

If accessibility is not perceived to be an important part of your organization’s mission that may lead to a conclusion that the least expensive accessibility solutions are best for you, but there are still several other factors to consider.

Is the vendor a good fit with your values?

Even if you don’t see a direct connection between your organization’s mission and accessibility (or perhaps you do, but your management does not yet see that connection), most large organizations have a set of values and standards that they use when selecting vendors.  Organizations often give preference to vendors who follow practices similar to their own, whether it be employment practices, privacy and security, environmental sustainability, respect for civil rights and human rights, or a whole range of other shared values.

Here’s an analogy: if you are willing to pay a little bit more for “fair trade” goods like fair trade coffee, shouldn’t you apply similar standards for your captioning and accessibility vendors? In many organizations accessibility is a new focus area, and as such there is little or no budget set aside for achieving your accessibility goals. In such situations there may be a tendency to lower your standards and accept the cheapest proposed solution. To give just one example, several new closed captioning companies pay their transcribers the equivalent of US $3.50 per hour, or less (yes, you read that correctly). While it’s true that these companies will pass on some of their cost savings to your organization, doesn’t this represent a double standard? If you are in charge of accessibility at your organization, you should make sure that you are not forced to accept a lower standard than what is expected of other vendors.

Does the vendor meet your quality standards?

Many organizations put a substantial amount of resources into ensuring that the quality of their products and services are top-notch. By providing high-quality services you enhance the reputation of your organization and build customer loyalty.  

Some organizations fall into the trap of thinking that only a small number of people will be exposed to the accessibility components of your services, and that as a result quality is less important, or low quality is less damaging to their reputation. This would be a serious mistake. While people with disabilities may not complain directly to you about the quality of your accessibility accommodations, they will notice the difference if you provide lower-quality communications to them than what is provided to others. In addition, providing poor quality in areas like captioning has drawn the attention of the Department of Justice in recent investigations, and could easily open an organization to an investigation. 

Due to perceived cost benefits, some organizations elect to choose a low-quality captioning solution with the idea that staff and subject matter experts can fix the errors. However, this can prove to be much more expensive than using a vendor that gets the captions right from the beginning. Ask captioning vendors if they assign content to transcribers who have subject matter expertise, and ask them to describe how they ensure quality.

Does the vendor provide additional services and features that will save your staff time?

Another potential pitfall of selecting a lower tier, less expensive solution as a closed captioning service provider is that you will often end expending a lot more staff time than necessary completing the final steps necessary to make the captions viewable by end users. For example, does the vendor offer integrations with common lecture capture and online video platforms that will vastly simplify the workflow of adding captions to video stored in those platforms? Does the vendor offer an accessible video player with interactive transcript features? Does the vendor offer multiple caption output formats, including video encoding options such as open captions?

Initially these features may not seem essential, but when you consider the cost of all the staff time needed to work around the limitations of lower tier vendors a slightly more expensive option can actually turn out to be a bargain.

Does your organization look for vendors who can also be partners?

While it is not uncommon for companies to look at some vendors as merely interchangeable suppliers, accessibility is a new and rapidly evolving field and it is not wise to think of your accessibility service providers as commodity suppliers. A better approach is to look for vendors who can be collaborative partners as you develop your accessibility strategies. Are your providers familiar with the principles, requirements, and techniques described in WCAG 2? Do their own products, tools, and websites meet the same high accessibility standards that you are trying to meet (for example, does the vendor’s tools and support sites target WCAG 2 Level AA requirements, and do they document any deficiencies and relevant workarounds)? 

Closed captioning companies that want to serve as a partner to your organization will go above and beyond what you would expect from a typical vendor by providing top-quality support, online documentation for virtually any captioning scenario you might come across, webinars, and customized training for your organization.  They will also collaborate with you on new solutions as your needs change and the best practices for accessibility evolve. In essence, if accessibility is important to your organization you should be looking to create an accessibility team that includes both internal staff and vendors that you can consider partners in achieving your goals.