Are automatic captions WCAG, ADA, or 508 compliant?

September 24, 2018 BY SOFIA ENAMORADO
Updated: January 29, 2020

There are several laws in the United States that define compliant captions. The goal of captioning is to provide an equal alternative to the audio so that deaf and hard of hearing individuals can equally enjoy the content.

Using automatic captions is a cheap and popular method to make videos accessible. But are automatic captions compliant?

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 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

everything you need to know about wcag 2.0 - free white paper

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 is a set of guidelines for making digital content accessible for all users, including those with disabilities.

WCAG 2.0 isn’t a law, yet many laws around the world have adopted the guideline as a standard for organizations to meet.

WCAG 2.0 has three level of compliance: Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA. If you comply with Level AA, you should also be compliant with Level A.

Under WCAG 2.0, closed captions are a Level A requirement for pre-recorded video. Closed captions must be synchronized with the media and represent all the dialogue and sounds in the video.

WCAG 2.0 Level AA requires captions for live video, and Level AAA requires an additional text alternative to videos – like a full-text transcript, in addition to closed captions.

Automatic Captions and the Americans With Disabilities Act

The legal requirements and standards for closed captioning can sometimes be confusing.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title II Protects individuals from discrimination by public entities. Requires "effective communication." In other words, they must provide equal alternatives. Public entities cannot refuse to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Title III Protects individuals from discrimination by private entities. Requires "effective communication." In other words, they must provide equal alternatives. Individuals with disabilities are also entitled to full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, or accommodations are any place of public accommodation.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not specifically mention best practices for closed captioning, past lawsuits can be looked at as an indication of what is generally accepted under the law. Additionally,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 screen reader. 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.”

Lawsuit: Netflix

In 2011, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a complaint against Netflix for violating the ADA and failing to provide closed captions on their streaming videos.

The final ruling was in favor of the NAD, noting that under the ADA Title III, “places of public accommodation” are not limited to physical structures.

This was the first time that the ADA had been applied to an online-only business, and as a result, lawsuits and settlements were brought forth against Amazon and Hulu over the captioning of their streaming services.

Under the lawsuit, Netflix agreed to caption 100% of its content – but how have they done?

In 2016, the NAD reached out again to Netflix due to numerous complaints over the inaccuracies in the captions of Queer Eye. Deaf viewers noted that swear words were omitted, along with whole sentences.

We’ve heard about the caption issues on the service, specifically for @QueerEye. After looking into it, there's lots of dialogue missing from the Fab 5 that shouldn't be. We're fixing it. In some cases, we do bleep incidental profanity from our unscripted series.


While Netflix has now gone back and corrected the captions, many viewers still note errors and inconsistencies in other TV shows hosted on the platform.

NAD CEO Howard Rosenblum noted, “As we push for 100 percent captioning, our next battle will be the quality of the captioning itself.”

Inaccurate captions can completely change the meaning of the content. For deaf and hard of hearing viewers, this is an unfair violation of the purpose of the ADA.

Automatic Captions and the Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act Section 504 Individuals with disabilities shall not be discriminated based solely on their disability. Requires "reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of the job. Individuals with disabilities include people with physical or mental disabilities. Section 508 All information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities. Requires an alternative, accessible technology method for disabled employees and the public. Also requires compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level A and Level AA success criteria.

The Rehabilitation Act is a federal anti-discrimination law. Under the Act, Section 504 and Section 508 apply to online accessibility.

Section 504 applies to federal and federally funded programs like colleges, airports, and police stations. Section 508 applies to the federal government, states that have enacted a “mini 508” law, or organizations that receive federal grants that require compliance with the section.

Section 508 directly references WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the level of compliance to meet.

Lawsuit: 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.

The DCMP on Caption Quality

10 tips for making video accessible - free guide

The Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) is a set of guidelines for captioning and description best practices. WCAG 2.0 highlights the DCMP Captioning Key as a resource for creating captions.

The DCMP Captioning Key states that “all captioning should include as much of the original language as possible; words or phrases which may be unfamiliar to the audience should not be replaced with simple synonyms. However, editing the original transcription may be necessary to provide time for the caption to be completely read and for it to be in synchronization with the audio.”

Most automatic captions fail to mimic the original language. Automatic captions, like YouTube’s, only average 60-70% accuracy and therefore will not protect you from a lawsuit.

The DCMP guidelines are consistent with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) closed captioning guidelines for broadcast television.

Automatic Captions Are Not Accurate

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.


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

Pricing Plans CTA


This post was originally published as “Why Automatic Captions Don’t Protect You From an ADA Lawsuit” by Elisa Edelberg on August 4, 2017. It has since been updated.

3play media logo in blue

Subscribe to the Blog Digest

Sign up to receive our blog digest and other information on this topic. You can unsubscribe anytime.

By subscribing you agree to our privacy policy.