Lawsuit Challenges Inaccessibility of Major Podcast Platforms

Three major media companies in U.S. podcasting were hit with a significant lawsuit to provide captioning and transcript access to people who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing. Should we be surprised?

As diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives become reality, and accessibility moves to the forefront of global conversations — it’s not shocking that calls for change are getting louder and the demands are carrying the weight of the law.

Image of iPhone captioning This American Life podcast in real time.
Ava captions podcasts in real-time (iOS)

Today, an estimated 120 million Americans are podcast listeners; and they’ve built up demand for what’s now a $1 billion industry. Forecasts predict the industry’s total U.S. listenership will hit 160 million in 2023 — or almost half of the U.S. population. In the UK and the EU, it’s a smaller-but-rapidly-growing quarter of the population.

So what responsibility do podcast streamers bear to be inclusive as their product has quickly become a leading source of news, political discourse, entertainment, and education? Apparently, far more than they realized.

The groundbreaking lawsuit filed by The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) alleges that three podcast giants — SiriusXM, Stitcher, and Pandora — actively exclude a potential 48 million Deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers. How exactly? None of these multimillion-dollar companies provide transcripts for podcasts available on their popular mobile applications.

Source: 3playmedia

“Podcasts are the latest form of entertainment, and it is imperative that Deaf and hard-of-hearing people not be left behind,” Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the NAD, said in his organization’s press release. “[They] have a duty under federal, state, and city laws to ensure their podcasts are fully accessible.”

The lawsuit alleges that by failing to provide equal access via transcripts, the podcast streamers are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as state and local New York law.

SiriusXM and Pandora haven’t responded to requests for comment.

Plaintiffs in the case, such as Dr. Amber Martin, have expressed deep frustration with the podcast streamers. Martin, a lecturer at Hunter College who is Deaf, feels as though she’s being “locked out” of important societal and cultural discussions as a result of not being able to access so many podcasts.

“There have been many times when someone told me about something they heard on a podcast and it sparked my interest but there was no transcript,” Martin said in the NAD press release. “It’s disappointing not to be able to participate in the conversations with friends, but especially frustrating to know that I’m locked out of a lot of information I’d like to have.”

Other plaintiffs, such as Rebecca Alexander, an author and extreme athlete who is Deaf and blind, see an irony in the streamers’ exclusionary practices. Alexander has been featured on many podcasts detailing her inspirational story of overcoming a rare genetic disorder to achieve extreme sports feats like summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro and swimming from Alcatraz to shore in the San Francisco bay. How can podcast streamers center narratives like hers without providing equal access to people like her?

“I am concerned about being precluded from a platform that has important commentary from people, myself included, because of inaccessibility,” she said in the NAD press release.

Deaf creatives like Caroline Mincks are taking notice, too. Mincks, an accessibility consultant and award-winning podcaster is the creator of Seen and Not Heard, an audio drama about hearing loss, Deaf gain, and navigating the world through changing circumstances. Mincks, who identifies as non-binary, told Ava they’ve experienced the “pain and frustration of being locked out from an entire medium” firsthand. But their hope is streamers recognize that by addressing accessibility there’s boundless opportunity.

“When 48 million people, at minimum, are given a way to be a part of podcasting, it opens 48 million doors, at minimum,” Mincks told Ava. “That’s an incredible amount of potential growth for the industry as a whole, the people involved, and anyone listening in. We’re starting to understand that accessibility isn’t just a favor we do for disabled people. It’s a necessity so that we can get a more complete picture of humankind and reflect that in our work.

As lawsuits like this one and the support of advocates hopefully spark a reckoning in the podcast industry, technology is helping close the gap in access. And it’s not just transcripts that are needed. It’s also disconcerting that podcasts can’t be accessed in real-time. What good is a news podcast if it’s not newsworthy?

With Ava CC, Deaf or hard-of-hearing podcast consumers can live caption podcasts on a computer; and with the Ava mobile app for iOS, anyone can live caption podcasts directly on a mobile device. Ava’s new Mobile Live Captions feature lets iOS users access podcasts in real time. With Mobile Live Captions, you can now get real-time captions for podcasts, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Clubhouse and more.

We have to level the playing field when it comes to access and inclusion. Providing total access means not only ensuring Deaf and hard-of-hearing people get high quality access to conversations at work and school but in all situations, including at the doctor’s office, shopping, and listening — or in our case, reading — podcasts and other information sources that have audio.

Ava’s Mobile Live Captions for podcasts, Instagram and more (iOS).