The ADA and Online Video Captioning Standards

September 27, 2013 BY SHANNON K. MURPHY
Updated: January 4, 2018

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed to accolades. For the first time ever, disabled individuals were not excluded from participation in essential everyday activities. Before this, buildings were not legally obligated to provide handicapped ramps, present informational signage in Braille, or allow service animals entry. “Auxiliary aids” assist the disabled, allowing equal access to goods or services provided to the public. Captions are one such auxiliary aid and were adopted more widely by movie theaters upon the passage of the ADA.

Since 1990, the use of video captioning has expanded. “Entertainment, educational, informational, and training materials are captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences at the time they are produced and distributed,” according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

While this may be true for DVD productions and nearly 2,000 hours of TV programs captioned weekly, online video is a new issue. Video has moved online for multiple uses: entertainment, education, and news. But there is an accessibility gap. ADA advocates must now demonstrate the necessity of captions for a new medium. With one third of tablet users watching more than 1 hour of online video daily, we can see that video captions cannot be optional for TV on-the-go. ADA safeguards must now move from local stores, schools, and movie theaters to online classrooms, streaming video sites, and ecommerce outlets.

Unsure exactly what is required and how quality captions should be formatted? Continue reading to understand what is legally necessary by the ADA for the captioning of online video and why.

How Does the ADA Address Online Video Captions?

To avoid confusion, we should be clear: it doesn’t. The ADA does not specifically address online video captioning standards. This is because the ADA was passed in 1990, when the Internet as we know it today did not exist, nor did streaming media.

Title III of the ADA however, provides for open and closed captioning as effective methods for delivering materials and services provided by “places of public accommodation.” But accessibility requirements aren’t just for movie theaters. It is important to note that since the passage of the ADA, important legislation involving the captioning of online media has come before the court which has implications for many online-only entities.

Download the brief: How the ADA Impacts Video Accessibility to get an in-depth understanding of how the ADA affects online video accessibility and captioning requirements.

The ADA, Auxiliary Aids, and Accommodation in Online Media

In 2010, a suit was brought against Netflix by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), alleging that Netflix was participating in discriminatory practices by excluding deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers from using the “Watch Instantly” streaming service. The complaint was Netflix, with 20 million subscribers, did not offer closed captions for much of their video content.

Netflix attempted to argue that, due to its role as a streaming video distributor, any legal action should pertain to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which, had its own set of captioning requirements with deadlines that had not passed. However, the court ruled that one law did not preclude the other. Netflix was not protected from ADA prosecution because of compliance with the CVAA.

The decision to move forward with a trial on the grounds that Netflix is a “place of public accommodation,” and therefore subject to ADA Title III, was groundbreaking. It was the first time the ADA had been interpreted to apply to an online-only business. In October of 2012, Netflix decided not to go to court and instead to settle with a legally binding consent decree: to caption 100% of their online videos by 2014.

It is the task of the American judicial system to interpret laws in a reasonable manner, particularly where necessitated by societal shifts. Though it was written in 1990, the history of the ADA makes it apparent that Congress intended the law to adjust according to changes in technology.

The CVAA and ADA: Complementary Laws

As already mentioned above, the National Association of the Deaf vs Netflix, Inc demonstrated that the CVAA does not “own” online video captioning law. In fact, these laws work together to ensure that multiple entities, whether related to business, education, or government, take care to provide accessible video and comply with both statutes when necessary.

Online Video Captioning Standards for ADA Compliance

Captions allow deaf viewers to understand the spoken content of videos by displaying words in sync with audio. Below are some generally accepted captioning standards for ADA best practices and compliance.

ADA Best Practices for Caption Timing and Positioning:

  • Each caption frame should hold 1 to 3 lines of text onscreen at a time, viewable for a duration of 3 to 7 seconds. Each line should not exceed 32 characters.
  • Each caption frame should be replaced by another caption.
  • All caption frames should be precisely time-synched to the audio.
  • A caption frame should be repositioned if it obscures onscreen text or other essential visual elements.

ADA Best Practices for Caption Style and Formatting:

  • Spelling should be at least 99% accurate.
  • When multiple speakers are present, sometimes it is helpful to identify who is speaking, especially when the video does not make this clear.
  • Both upper and lowercase letters should be used.
  • The font should be a non-serif, such as Helvetica medium.
  • Non-speech sounds like [MUSIC] or [LAUGHTER] should be added in square brackets.
  • Punctuation should be used for maximum clarity in the text, not necessarily for textbook style.
  • Captions should preserve and identify slang or accents.

Captions are not only used by the deaf or hard-of-hearing to watch Netflix movies; they’re useful to students who need a multimodal experience in video learning programs, and by those who use English as a second language and still need assistance recognizing expressions and speech patterns. Regardless, captions work toward the ADA’s goal: a more inclusive society. With connected technology embracing and amplifying this aim, the ADA must drive accessibility advancements to match technological changes.

Download the brief: How the ADA Impacts Video Accessibility

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