Digital Accessibility, Closed Captioning & How to Prevent ADA Lawsuits

The COVID-19 pandemic launched the world into a new digital era, prompting people to rely on the internet more than ever. The increased time spent online illuminated how far society was from fully supporting the digital accessibility needs of people with disabilities, who make up around 15% of the global population.

People with disabilities have long been asking for accommodations for full digital accessibility. Seamless accessibility tools have been scarce for decades. However, when the world was pushed into remote-mode, efforts to make online learning and digital work easier for everyone — disabled or otherwise — advancements shifted to full speed.

Platforms such as Zoom and Google Chat (formerly Google Hangouts) rapidly incorporated accessibility features like closed captioning and transcriptions. For many Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the introduction of closed captions across the web was a delayed, but reassuring solution to a recurring request.

The growing popularity of closed captions serves more than the 15% of the population coping with hearing loss. Captions also make the digital world more accessible and inclusive for the 61 million Americans living with disabilities — 10% of whom are adults that have blindness or low vision, and another 3% that have intellectual or developmental disabilities. With statistics like these, it’s clear that closed captions aren’t just for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. They are now essential for all audiences.

Image with a graphic of the US filled with figures that demonstrate how disability impacts all of us.

Image Source: CDC

The Case for Closed Captions

These days, more video content is created in 30 days than the major U.S. television networks have broadcasted in 30 years. As video consumption continues to increase daily, the need for closed captions proves paramount.

In addition to the accommodation provided for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, captions make it easier for hearing viewers to follow along with verbal conversation. Closed captions have shown to improve literacy and reading comprehension and elevate language skills for those who watch content in a non-native language. Displaying text on screen also offers viewers a visual method of committing content to memory.

For people with other disabilities such as autism, following complex conversations or decoding speech when there’s a lot of background noise can be challenging. To this extent, muting content and turning on closed captions can be helpful with focus. Similarly, individuals with Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder, or ANSD, prefer and sometimes greatly rely on closed captions for watching videos to help discern speech from background noise.

Image Source: Hubspot

Closed captions are also suitable for those with ADHD who generally have a hard time dividing attention between various stimuli. They help maintain both concentration and engagement levels. Although it may seem counterintuitive, captions are a valuable tool for Dyslexic people since they can hear and see the information simultaneously.

In addition to aiding those with disabilities, recent studies indicate that 50% of hearing people prefer watching videos with captions instead of sound. Closed captions enable viewers to consume content in sound-sensitive places and accommodate people with an always-on-the-go lifestyle. Not to mention, they provide clarity for dialogues with unique accents that may be difficult to understand.

Video Source: YouTube

Falling Behind The Curve on Accessibility

Unsurprisingly, there are still a large percentage of heedless companies who fail to provide digital accessibility for their customers. In addition to the evident benefits of closed captions for all, ensuring digital accessibility also decreases the risk of complaints, demand letters and inevitable lawsuits for non-compliance with ADA. Significant financial consequences and being deemed an inaccessible company in the public eye are damaging setbacks that can easily be avoided with the technical solutions available today.

In June 2011, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed suit against Netflix, citing their lack of closed captioning for streaming video as a violation of the ADA. At the onset of the lawsuit, NAD President Bobbie Beth Scoggins voiced a strong message: “We have tried for years to persuade Netflix to do the right thing and provide equal access to all content across all platforms. They chose not to serve our community on an equal basis; we must have equal access to the biggest provider of streamed entertainment. As Netflix itself acknowledges, streamed video is the future and we must not be left out.”

“Streamed video is the future and
we must not be left out.”
— NAD President Bobbie Beth Scoggins

Although the Netflix lawsuit set off warning signs for other tech giants, missteps in the digital space continued. The NAD soon persuaded Hulu to adopt a formal closed captioning policy for their streaming web video, and struck a deal with Amazon to ensure that Amazon’s library of over 190,000 TV shows and films would offer closed captioning.

As recently as 2020, Twitter was forced to apologize when it rolled out its “voice tweet” feature, but neglected to provide captioning support, rendering it useless for Deaf people. In response to the public outcry on its site, Twitter admitted that they were wrong to test the feature “without support for people who are visually impaired, deaf, or hard-of-hearing”.  

In 2021, there were a slew of ADA video lawsuits filed. Despite the number of growing violations and lawsuits, companies are still ignoring the call to provide appropriate accommodations for full digital accessibility.

Image with light blue background with statistics of yearly trend of ADA related digital lawsuits.

Image Source: UsableNet

Tech Giants Lead Digital Accessibility

While many companies still lag on the ADA compliance front, some larger tech companies are doing their best to avoid non-compliant litigation by making digital accessibility improvements. In recent years, Google has launched Live Transcribe and Sound Amplifier to help people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing communicate better.

Comparatively, Facebook or Meta has rolled out automatic captions on Instagram's IGTV, and offers alternative (alt) text photo descriptions for users who are visually impaired and blind. As of this past October, LinkedIn has added several features geared toward making their website more inclusive to individuals with accessibility needs, including automatic captions on videos. YouTube has also significantly improved its automatic closed captioning on videos over the last few years.

Of course, assuring compliance with ADA video accessibility laws is about more than avoiding lawsuits and dodging complaints—it’s about creating a barrier-free online experience for people with disabilities. With their enormous resources and massive user base, tech giants bear the responsibility to set an example and lead the charge with accessibility progress.

Guidelines for Creating Closed Captions

Following these ADA compliancy tips for closed captioning can enhance the user experience and help with avoiding violation of anti-discrimination laws.

  • Utilize speech-to-text programs To automatically create captions for audio content, these programs can identify spoken dialog and transcribe it into text. Apps like Ava generate captions with high speed and accuracy making the process much faster than transcribing each word by ear.
Image with Ava logo and blue background with a quote reading "Video to text is probably the biggest improvement for the hard of hearing since the hearing aid. Ava in quality and availability is in my experience the leader amongst service providers." Rob B.

Image Source: Ava

  • Accuracy: For captions to work successfully, they must relay the speaker’s exact words with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation without paraphrasing. They must honor the original intent and tone of the speaker and match other sounds such as background noises and other non-speech sound elements to the fullest extent possible.

  • Synchronization Captions are only valuable when they are in sync with audio. They should be verbatim with the words being spoken and align with the content's pace. Subsequently, they must appear on the screen long enough for the viewer to read them.

  • Length, Placement and Format For ease of readability, limit on screen captions to three lines or less. In addition to using a legible font size, captions must be positioned on the screen without blocking important content. To accommodate viewer comprehension, maintain a uniformed presentation and style.

  • Use a transcription service Manual captioning can be timely. Consider hiring a transcription service rather than using an application to caption content. Transcription services such as Ava Scribe combine AI with human scribes to take the legwork out of the transcription process while providing a fast and accurate solution.
Online Access and Digital Equality for All

Accessibility is a universal right that should be readily available to everyone. Accurately captioning content is a simple and inclusive step that positively impacts a significant portion of the population. Captions have helped propel access forward for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but there is always more work to be done.

As digital accessibility and inclusion efforts evolve, the disparities that disabled people experience will continue to shrink. Staying current with the state of digital accessibility is crucial, so that we can understand what more is needed in order to achieve total digital equality for all.