What the Video Accessibility Act Means to You

When you’re planning your company’s post-production video workflow, you’d better add one more component: video captioning. Providing captions has always been a good idea, and soon it will be a law.

President Obama signed legislation on October 8 that will improve access to technology for the blind and deaf. Called the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, it covers a range of tech areas. It requires audible descriptions of action on television shows, easier remote control options for accessing closed captioning, and improved interfaces on smartphones that will make it easier for the disabled to go online. More significantly for our industry, it mandates captions for online TV programming.

The move didn’t come as a shock to the online industry, which had been moving in the direction of greater accessibility for some time. YouTube, for example, opened up its auto-captioning feature in March, 2010. The Senate passed the same bill in August, so this was clearly a short time in coming.

The president signed the bill in the East Room of the White House, joined by singer Stevie Wonder, as well as lawmakers who had supported the bill.

“We’ve come a long way but even today, after all the progress that we’ve made, too many Americans with disabilities are still measured by what folks think they can’t do, instead of what we know they can do,” Obama said.

You can read Obama’s full remarks on the signing.

For a detailed look at what’s required by the bill, see this report from the National Association of the Deaf.

One of the people in attendance at the signing was Andrew Kirkpatrick, group product manager for accessibility at Adobe. Writing on the Adobe blog, he said, “Adobe supports the provisions of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act as great advances to ensure equal access for people with disabilities. The most immediate impact of this legislation on developers using Adobe tools will be the delivery of closed captions for video online, followed by the provision of accessible controls for video and video description to aid comprehension of content by users who are blind or visually-impaired.”

Other organizations and companies were quick to offer support. Ramp, which makes a content optimization platform for online publishers, announced that it’s captioning technology was already compliant with the law.

“Adding Web closed captioning is a non-trivial undertaking for broadcasters, as the digital workflow for publishing video online typically strips or misaligns the original closed caption data,” said Tom Wilde, RAMP CEO, quoted on “RAMP’s solution addresses this problem end-to-end, and delivers 100 percent compliance with the new law while also enabling other forms of usability essential to broadcasters’ business objectives.”

Following the signing, the University of Wisconsin-Madison signed a statewide contract with 3Play Media for captioning and transcription services. The made the UW system the second statewide university system in the U.S., after the University of California, to mandate transcripts and captions for online content.

“Captioning benefits are often associated with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, but research dating back to the ‘80s concluded that captions also improve reading and listening comprehension, word recognition, and decoding skills,” noted Alice Anderson, the University of Wisconsin’s technology accessibility program coordinator.

While most reaction was positive, there were some concerned over the cost of adding captions. The Video Commerce Consortium wrote, “A significant piece of new legislation, affecting all online video producers and creators, was signed in to law in October. The result could be added cost, legal exposure, and liability for online video creators.”

The full details of the act aren’t yet known, as the FCC is now creating requirements for what material needs to be captioned. It could well turn out that only material that has been shown on television, as was spelled on in the version passed by the Senate, will require captioning. This certainly won’t affect user-generated content, and likely won’t impact small companies. Larger publishers, however, will want to get a jump on the requirements and look for the most cost-effective way to include an auto-captioning component into their video workflow.


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