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Legal Requirements for Closed Captioning of Online Video in the U.S.: ADA, Section 508, CVAA, and FCC Mandates

  • Are You Breaking Video Accessibility Laws and Don't Even Know It?

    If you produce or distribute videos in the United States, your content may be subject to federal regulations regarding accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing. The rules are adapting to the digital age, so it’s important to be aware of what laws are on the books and which ones apply to you.

    Here’s a quick overview of the most important video accessibility laws in the US:

    Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

    Passed in 1990, the ADA set landmark accessibility requirements that affect both private and public entities. Just as the ADA requires handicap ramp access to buildings, it demands that “auxiliary aids” be made available to anyone with a disability. In the case of the deaf and hard of hearing, that means providing closed captioning for videos.

    Closed captioning or video transcriptions are required for:

    • “Public entities,” i.e., state and local governments, in both internal and external video communication.
    • “Places of public accommodations,” which is a business in any of the following industries. (Private clubs and religious organizations are exempt.)
    • Lodging (e.g., hotels)
    • Food service (e.g., restaurants)
    • Entertainment (e.g., movie theaters)
    • Public displays (e.g., museums)
    • Public venues (e.g., libraries)
    • Service industry (e.g., doctor’s offices)
    • Retail (e.g., shops)
    • Public Transportation (e.g., train stations)
    • Education (e.g., universities)
    • Recreation (e.g., stadiums)
    • Social Services (e.g., day care)
    • Fitness (e.g., gyms)

    While the ADA doesn’t specifically address online video (it was written in 1990, after all), legal precedent set by a 2012 law suit categorized Netflix, a purely virtual business, as a ‘place of public accommodation’ and therefore required video captioning. The ADA is long overdue for revision to explicitly define a place of public accommodation in the context of the Internet. Until then, the consensus is that any website or online business that fits into one of the 12 categories above is subject to ADA regulations. This would include colleges and universities.

    Rehabilitation Act (Sections 508 & 504)

    Enacted in 1973, this law originally addressed disability discrimination for federal entities or organizations receiving federal funding. Two amendments, Sections 504 and 508, broaden the act’s application to online video content.

    Section 504 essentially makes accessibility for individuals with disabilities a civil right. Failure to accommodate individuals with disabilities can result in a discrimination law suit. This applies to both federal agencies and any entity that receives federal funding.

    Section 508 specifically demands accessibility for electronic media or IT in federal programs or services. While this section doesn’t explicitly extend beyond federal agencies, many states passed laws that do extend its reach to organizations that receive federal funding. This includes many colleges, universities, cultural and arts institutions, research facilities, etc. Further, the Assistive Technology Act will not provide funding to states unless they guarantee that all programs – including colleges and universities – will comply with Section 508.

    There is some debate as to how far-reaching this law is. Expect to see clarity in a proposed rule that would refresh Section 508 closed captioning standards to comply with WCAG 2.0 success criteria.

    21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA)

    The CVAA requires closed captioning for online video content that was originally broadcast on TV with captions. The CVAA does not cover video content that aired only online and never on television.

    To allow media producers a chance to catch up with their backlog of content, the CVAA has rolling deadlines for compliance. Currently, video producers or distributors must caption applicable videos within 45 days of being put online. Upcoming deadlines are:

    • March 30, 2015: Video providers or distributors are given a 30-day window to add captions to online video airs on TV.
    • March 30, 2016: That window shortens to 15 days from the time the video airs on TV.

    Mostly the CVAA affects TV broadcast media companies. If your video content never airs on TV, this law doesn’t apply to you.

    FCC Mandates for Closed Captioning of Online Video

    Numerous FCC mandates for online video programming were passed in 2014 to build up closed captioning rules for IP-delivered content. Like the CVAA, FCC rulings apply to online video that previously appeared on television. Here are the most prominent updates to FCC rules for online video:

    Online Video Clips & Deadlines

    In addition to the shortening window of turnaround time for captioning broadcast media, there are upcoming deadlines that apply to video clips and montages. Beginning January 1, 2016, the FCC requires that excerpts from TV programming include captions. The following year, this rule extends to montages as well, so clusters of video clips will need to be fully captioned. Finally, by July 1, 2017, captions will be required for live or nearly-live footage within 12 hours of airing.

    FCC deadlines

    Quality Standards

    The FCC has clarified quality standards for television captioning, which set the precedent for online video captioning as a whole.

    • Accuracy: captions must relay the speaker’s exact words with correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar with 99% accuracy. No paraphrasing. Honor the original tone and intent of the speaker.
    • Time Synchronization: captions must align with the time the words are spoken. Captions must not proceed too quickly for the viewer to read.
    • Program Completeness: captions must be included from start to finish.
    • Placement: captions must be positioned on the screen without blocking important content. Font size should be reasonably legible.

    User Control

    As of January 1, 2014, the FCC mandates new user control requirements for consuming online video which previously aired with captions on television. This involves an application or plug-in to video players which allows the viewer to select font type, size, color, opacity, and edge style for their caption display.


    If your organization is affected by the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, CVAA, or FCC rulings, you will need closed captioning on your online video or else risk fines and lawsuits. Check the 3Play blog for updates on video captioning regulations and deadline reminders.

14 Responses to Legal Requirements for Closed Captioning of Online Video in the U.S.: ADA, Section 508, CVAA, and FCC Mandates

  1. Need help in captioning from my local t.v. station wcax 3 Burlington Vermont A huge of percentage is not captioned. Yet the owner claims he is complying with ADA/FCC Who can I contact?

  2. Jennifer Tomlinson says:

    What can I do if my college does not provide closed captioning for online videos?? As a hearing impaired student, I am appalled!

    • Emily Griffin says:

      Contact your college’s Student Disabilities Services Department. They should be able to get you captioned versions of any videos used in class.

      • We are an K-12 Educational Resource Center that functions on the County level in the State of Michigan. We provide services to schools in Wayne County, including Detroit. Some are mandated by State statute. Are we required to provide LIVE Closed Captioning of Live Video Streamed events? Live Adobe Connect Webcasts? or Live Videoconferencing events? I kniow we must close caption archived lideo events (posted after the fact). Thank you!

        • Emily Griffin says:

          Hi Jeff! I’m not familiar with the state statute in question, but if it is tied to Section 508 captioning requirements, then yes, live captioning would be needed for streaming video. Section 508 is getting a refresh to point to WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards, which require live captioning (https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/quickref/).

  3. Teresa says:

    How does this apply to videos on a company website where the purpose of the video is to sell a product/brand? Do commercials need to be captioned?

    • Emily Griffin says:

      If the commercials aired on American television with captions, yes, they need captions on your website. If the video never aired on television, then FCC rules do not apply. However, if captions are requested for your online videos, you would be required to accommodate a deaf viewer according to the ADA. That’s why it’s best to be proactive about captioning online video, then you don’t have to worry about accommodating requests.

  4. Adam says:

    You mention both closed captioning and video transcriptions in the top of the article – but later it seems to discuss only closed captioning. Can you speak to whether short instructional video clips (interviews made as part of an elearning course, never broadcast on tv) are compliant if they have transcripts, or do they require closed captions?

    • Emily Griffin says:

      Certainly, thanks for asking. Transcripts are great for making audio content accessible, but video (which uses both audio and visual elements) needs timed-text closed captioning to display the text in sync with the visuals on screen. So any video, whether it’s a video clip or a full-length program, whether it’s broadcast on TV or used in education, needs closed captions to be considered fully accessible to a deaf viewer. Check out this post for more info: Why a Transcript is Not Enough to Make Your Videos Compliant with Accessibility Law

  5. Laurie says:

    Videos that are posted on Facebook by a public person who has a public Facebook page and is seeking to promote a product (such as an author seeking to promote books) that are not captioned for deaf readers – is this covered under the regulations? Should such public person(s) be encouraged to comply?

    • Emily Griffin says:

      Should they be encouraged to caption those videos? Absolutely!

      Especially if they’re using the video for promotional reasons, they want as many eyes glued to the screen as possible. And Facebook proved that captioned videos increase watch time by 12%.

      As for the legal requirements, if the content was never aired on American TV with captions, it is not covered by the CVAA. If the Facebook page belongs to a federal agency, then Section 508 applies and it needs captions. The ADA doesn’t explicitly call for captions on social media videos, and it generally would not apply to an individual’s Facebook page.

  6. Sandra Hansen says:

    I am taking online training for employment. The videos show the closed caption symbol, however there is not closed captioning. The testing company said they are updating the system and don’t know when it will be available again. Is this a violation? It has been very difficult to understand the videos and takes me longer to complete.

    • Emily Griffin says:

      I’m sorry to hear that. It definitely sounds like they’re having some kind of technical error. If you request closed captions as an accommodation for a disability (that includes learning disabilities, too), then they are required by the ADA to provide captions in a timely manner. It sounds like they’re working on it, so I recommend just following up to make sure you get what you need.

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