U.S. Laws for Video Accessibility: ADA, Section 508, CVAA, and FCC Mandates
Updated: August 30, 2023
Are you breaking video accessibility laws and don’t even know it?
If you produce or distribute videos in the United States, your content may be subject to federal regulations regarding accessibility for people who are d/Deaf and hard of hearing. Accessibility laws are adapting to the digital age, so it’s important to be aware of legal standards and how they apply to your business.
- Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act
- Section 504 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act
- 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act
- The Federal Communications Commission Mandates
Here’s a quick overview of the most important U.S. laws affecting video accessibility:
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Passed in 1990, the ADA set landmark accessibility requirements that impact both private and public entities. Just as the ADA requires physical access to buildings, the law also demands that “auxiliary aids” be made available to anyone with a disability. While the ADA does not explicitly mention online video, captions and audio description are examples of auxiliary aids that can help make videos accessible.
Closed captioning or video transcriptions are required for:
- “Public entities,” including state and local governments, in both internal and external video communication.
- “Places of public accommodations,” which are public or private businesses used by the public at large. Private clubs and religious organizations are exempt.
While the ADA doesn’t specifically address online video, numerous lawsuits have set legal precedent for video accessibility. For example, the 2012 lawsuit National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix categorized Netflix, a purely virtual business, as a “place of public accommodation” and therefore required video captioning.
Although most video accessibility lawsuits concern captioning, the ADA also requires audio description in certain instances. Settlement agreements between the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and Netflix and ACB and Hulu set legal precedent for streaming services to provide audio description.
The ADA is long overdue for revision to explicitly define a place of public accommodation in the context of the Internet. However, until then, the consensus is that any website or online business that fits into one of the 12 categories of public accommodation is subject to ADA regulations.
Rehabilitation Act (Sections 508 & 504)
Enacted in 1973, the Rehabilitation Act originally addressed disability discrimination for federal entities or organizations receiving federal funding. Two amendments, Sections 504 and 508, broadened the act’s application to online video content.
Section 504 makes accessibility for disabled individuals a civil right. Failure to accommodate individuals with disabilities can result in a discrimination lawsuit, which applies to both federal agencies and any entity that receives federal funding.
Section 508 mandates accessibility for electronic media or IT in federal programs or services. While this section doesn’t explicitly extend beyond federal agencies, many states passed laws called “mini 508 laws” that extend the section’s reach to organizations that receive federal funding. This includes many colleges, universities, arts and culture institutions, and research facilities. Further, the Assistive Technology Act will not provide funding to states unless they guarantee that all programs, including colleges and universities, comply with Section 508.
Section 508 also requires compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA success criteria. This means that pre-recorded video must have captions and audio description, and live video must be live captioned.
21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA)
The CVAA requires closed captioning for online video content that was originally broadcast on TV with captions. The CVAA does not cover video content that is aired only online and never on television.
The CVAA mostly affects TV broadcast media companies. If your video content never airs on TV, this law doesn’t apply to you.
The CVAA also requires any clips, montages, or compilations to be captioned when published online.
FCC Mandates for Closed Captioning of Online Video
Numerous FCC mandates for online video programming were passed in 2014 to increase closed captioning rules for IP-delivered content. Like the CVAA, FCC rulings apply to online video that previously appeared on television. Here are the most prominent updates to FCC rules for online video:
The FCC has clarified quality standards for television captioning, which set the precedent for online video captioning as a whole.
- Accuracy: Captions must relay the speaker’s exact words with correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar with 99% accuracy and no paraphrasing. Captions must honor the original tone and intent of the speaker. Captions must match background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible.
- Time Synchronization: Captions must align with their corresponding spoken words and sounds to the greatest extent possible. Captions must not proceed too quickly for the viewer to read.
- Program Completeness: Captions must be included from the beginning to the end of the program to the fullest extent possible.
- Placement: Captions must be positioned on the screen without blocking important content. Font size should be reasonably legible.
The FCC mandates new user control requirements for consuming online video which previously aired with captions on television. This involves an application or plug-in to video players that allow the viewer to select font type, size, color, opacity, and edge style for their caption display.
If your organization is affected by the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, CVAA, or FCC rulings, you will need closed captioning and audio description on your online video or else risk fines and lawsuits.
This blog post was originally published by Emily Griffin 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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