The ADA and Online Video Captioning Standards
Updated: March 9, 2021
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.
While the ADA was originally intended to apply to physical structures, with the advent of the internet it has been increasingly applied to the digital world as well – including online video.
Since 1990, the use of video captioning has expanded among all industries. In fact, by 2019, 80% of the world’s internet traffic will be video.
Video has moved online for multiple uses: entertainment, education, and news. But there is an accessibility gap. ADA safeguards must now move from local stores, schools, and movie theaters to online classrooms, streaming video sites, and e-commerce outlets.
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. This is because the ADA was passed in 1990 when the Internet as we know it today did not exist, nor did streaming media.
In principle, the ADA protects the civil rights of a disabled person, and that should extend to the internet. But the specifics on execution are hazy. This led to a slew of web accessibility lawsuits citing violation of the ADA, such as a FedEx suit in 2014 and the Harvard and MIT lawsuit in 2015.
In the latter case, the United States Department of Justice released a statement of interest promoting a clear precedent for the ADA to require accessibility for digital resources. The DOJ intends to issue new notices of public rulemaking to further clarify how the ADA affects web accessibility.
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.
This blog post was originally published by Shannon Murphy on September 27, 2013 and has since been updated.
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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