Why Automatic Captions Don’t Protect You From an ADA Lawsuit

August 4, 2017 BY ELISA EDELBERG
Updated: January 4, 2018


Automatic Captions Are Not a Joke

Any YouTube watcher, Buzzfeed fan, or really anyone who spends time on the internet can probably agree that YouTube’s automatic captions have made for some ridiculously funny #captionfails including this Jaimaican Vacation Hoax, for example. When it comes to accessibility, however, automatic captions are not a joke.

In an average sentence of 8 words, a 95% accuracy rate means there will be an error on average every 2.5 sentences. Automatically generated captions typically average an accuracy rate far below this at 60-70% accuracy. That means, on average, every 1 in 3 words will be incorrect. For someone relying on captions to understand the audio content in a video, this is simply not sufficient for a Deaf or hard of hearing individual who relies on having accurate captions.

In addition to an extremely low accuracy rate, automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology frequently fails on small “function” words that are crucial in conveying meaning in speech. An example of this is:

“I can’t attend the meeting.” vs. “I can attend the meeting.”

This example shows a very common type of ASR error. Although this may seem insignificant, the meaning of the sentence is actually completely reversed.

Automatic Captions and the Americans With Disabilities Act

The legal requirements and standards for closed captioning can sometimes be confusing. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not specifically mention best practices for closed captioning, past lawsuits can be looked at as indication of what is generally accepted under the law. Additionally, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA has become known to be the acceptable standard when complying with the ADA. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Office of Civil Rights (OCR) have in fact included requirements for meeting WCAG standards in several settlement agreements.

Notably, in June 2015 the OCR submitted a letter to the University of Phoenix in response to an investigation that the University discriminated against individuals on the basis of a disability when making the switch to a new online learning platform.

The letter is significant because it lays out Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) 2.0 standards in the resolution agreement, suggesting that the OCR believes WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards should be followed by colleges and universities to ensure their web content is accessible.

In another case, Florida federal District Court Judge Robert Scola ruled that grocery store chain Winn-Dixie was in violation of Title III of the ADA because its website was inaccessible to a blind man who was not able to use features on the website with the assistance of a screenreader. This decision was the most comprehensive of its kind, requiring that Winn-Dixie “adopt and implement a Web Accessibility Policy which ensures that its website conforms with the WCAG 2.0 criteria.”

NAD v. MIT and Harvard

In February 2015, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) along with several Deaf individuals filed suit against Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University for violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act for failure to provide accurate and comprehensive captioning for online course materials. The complaint stated, “Much of Harvard’s online content is either not captioned or is inaccurately or unintelligibly captioned, making it inaccessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.” They then specifically cited several examples of content that were captioned with YouTube’s automatic captions.

WCAG Captioning Standards

While the ADA and Rehabilitation Act do not go into detail on standards and best practices for captioning, WCAG 2.0 AA has been widely accepted around the world as the standard for web accessibility, including captioning. It has also been made clear from previous lawsuits and the settlement agreements that WCAG 2.0 AA is the accepted standard.

In fact, the Section 508 refresh which goes into effect starting January 2018 will bring Section 508 requirements up to speed with modern technology and with the WCAG.

In order to avoid litigation it’s important to make sure that your content is captioned. But that’s not all. Inaccurate and intelligible captions are not accessible and because of that, they are not going to protect you from a lawsuit.

Automatic captions, like YouTube’s, only average 60-70% accuracy and therefore will not protect you from a lawsuit. Your content has to be captioned understandably and must meet the standards and requirements outlined in WCAG 2.0 AA in order to be accessible and protect you from the law.


Want to make sure your content is captioned accurately? Get started captioning with 3Play Media today!

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