Did You Know? Audio Description Is Required by Law

January 21, 2021 BY ELISA LEWIS
Updated: January 29, 2021

It can be difficult to keep up with ever-changing accessibility laws and their application to rapidly evolving technology and media. However, the challenge of staying up-to-date doesn’t exempt businesses, institutions, and organizations from providing legally required accommodations, such as audio description (AD).

As accessibility professionals, and as educators in the industry, something we often hear is, “We don’t need audio description because we haven’t had any blind or low vision students request it.” Many people are not aware that AD is likely a legal requirement – request or not – depending on the industry, and the type of content that is produced.


A cartoon. CC cartoon says to AD cartoon: "Hi, AD. How are you doing? Rumor has it you are not required on videos." Then the AD cartoon replies: "Actually, I am! I'm required under the same accessibility laws that you are. Now that Section 508 references WCAG 2.0 standards I'm written directly into the law! That's right, CC, it's time for AD to share the spotlight!"


Beginner’s Guide to Audio Description


Audio Description Requirements by Industry

In this post, we’ll break down audio description requirements by industry.

Government Organizations

Fact: Audio description is required under The Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that federal communications and information technology are made accessible. Under the Section 508 Refresh – phased in in early 2018 – all government organizations are legally required to provide audio description, even without an accommodation request.

Yes, that’s right. The Section 508 refresh references the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 success criterion to each existing section of the 508 Standards, requiring both captions and AD for video content that falls under Section 508.

Media and Entertainment

In October 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) into effect, requiring that modern communications technologies be made accessible to all people regardless of vision and hearing loss.

Captioning Best Practices for Media & Entertainment

Both audio description and captioning may be required for your media and entertainment videos. Learn more about captioning requirements, best practices, and standards.

Read the White Paper

The CVAA started phasing-in audio description requirements for broadcast TV in 2010. The current AD rules require commercial television broadcast stations that are affiliated with one of the top four commercial television broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) and are located in the top 60 television markets to provide 50 hours of audio-described programming per calendar quarter during prime time or on children’s programming, as well as an additional 37.5 hours of audio-described programming per calendar quarter at any time between 6 a.m. and midnight (87.5 hours total). In addition, MVPD systems that serve 50,000 or more subscribers must provide the same amount of AD on each of the top five national nonbroadcast networks that they carry on those systems.

As of December 30, 2020, the CVAA provided the FCC with authority to expand its AD requirements, which will be phased in for an additional 10 designated market areas (DMAs) every year over the next four years.

In addition to the CVAA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has two parts that apply to video accessibility. Title II of the ADA requires audio description for public entities, and Title III requires AD for places of public accommodation, including private organizations that provide public accommodation. This includes streaming media sites, such as Hulu and Netflix.

Enterprise Organizations & Corporations

Title II and Title III of the ADA also apply to enterprise organizations. The ADA requires that training videos and public website videos are accessible to all individuals, with and without disabilities. Since people who are blind or low vision often need AD for equal access, companies may be required to provide audio description for video content.

Failure to provide accessible videos has resulted in several corporate lawsuits, including one with FedEx. While requirements may differ depending on the circumstances, enterprise organizations and corporations may consider taking a proactive approach by providing captions and AD.

Higher Education

Myth: You don't need to add audio description to your videos unless you receive an accommodation request.

Providing audio description in higher education is a major factor for meeting accessibility requirements. Audio description is required under many of the same laws requiring captions. Over the years several lawsuits have been filed against institutions that failed to meet accessibility requirements. Complying with accessibility laws from the get-go can prevent potential legal problems down the road.

Private and public colleges that receive federal funding must comply with the Rehabilitation Act. Colleges that receive state funding must comply with local state laws, too (often called mini-508s). All colleges provide a public accommodation and must comply with ADA requirements.

Due to scrupulous accessibility legislation for higher educations, institutions must provide AD for their video content – with or without a request.

How to Get in Compliance

It’s important to be aware of the current audio description laws so that you can get in compliance, provide accessible content, and avoid any future legal action.

There are 253 million people living with vision impairment who are waiting for you to take the next step. When all is said and done, providing AD and accessible video is the right thing to do.

Whether you’re already captioning with us or not, it’s easy to get started with audio description today.


The Beginner's Guide to Audio Description ebook.

This blog post is written for educational and general information purposes only, and does not constitute specific legal advice. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

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