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Why Is Accessible Video Important?


This page focuses on the “why” of captioned and described media, including their role in ensuring equal participation as a civil right, their benefit for learning and literacy, and their ability to expand the reach of a message and engage audiences.

Required by Civil Rights Laws

Captions and audio description are powerful tools for allowing people with disabilities to fully participate in the educational, social, cultural, economic and political lives of their communities.

Captions and audio descriptions are required under federal civil rights laws that protect students with disabilities:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Title II covers state and local government entities, including public schools and universities, and Title III extends to public accommodation and commercial facilities, such as  private colleges and movie theaters.
  • Section 504 of the  Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires the federal government and any organizations that receive federal funding to ensure equal access for people with disabilities.

Captions and audio description are requirements under the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are referenced by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. See Guideline 1.2: Time-based Media for compliance details

Finally, captions and audio descriptions are required under the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). The CVAA requires closed captioning for online video content that was originally broadcast on TV. It also has some requirements for the number of hours of described video provided by the major networks, with the goal of eventually having all broadcast video be accessible.

For additional information about accessibility laws and requirements, visit the following resources:

The Importance of Captioning

Essential for Some, Helpful for All

While legally mandated to ensure access for people with sensory disabilities, the benefits of captions and audio description are even wider-reaching. They are a classic example of the universal design philosophy, which states that “what is essential for some, is almost always helpful for all.”

Captions can help everyone when:  

  • People are in noisy public environments such as airports, gyms, and restaurants.
  • A person wants to watch TV while someone else is sleeping or studying in the room.
  • A speaker in the video has a strong or difficult to understand accent.
  • A video includes specialized or unfamiliar vocabulary (legal, medical or scientific terms).
  • A sound system is not working, or the sound quality is poor.

Described media has become available in the mainstream more recently than captioning, and less is known about their impact beyond people who are blind. Another potential beneficiary of described content could be students with autism. The theory is that they could benefit from the more explicit explanations (especially with regard to emotions) in the audio descriptions. Also, as more people consume their video content in places where it is not always possible to look at a screen (thanks in part to the rise of mobile technology) the usefulness of described media as a universal design feature will become more evident. Already, many of us are becoming used to interacting with screen-less devices in the form of smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo or the Google Home.

Video Description

Inclusion of verbal or auditory descriptions of on-screen visuals intended to describe important details not contained from main audio output.

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Equipment or system where principal function is creation, conversion, duplication, control, display, interchange, transmission, reception, or broadcast of data.

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Captions for Learning and Literacy

Captions also have far-ranging benefits for learning and literacy, as summarized in a 2015 review of video caption literature by Morton Ann Gernsbacher. By explicitly illustrating the mapping among sounds, meaning, and text, captions can benefit hearing children who are learning to read. Children who watch captioned videos are better able to define content words heard in the videos, to pronounce novel words, to recognize vocabulary items, and to draw inferences about what happened in the videos. There may also be an affective component. If the videos are engaging, it may encourage reluctant readers to gain more exposure with print and practice key skills. Today’s young learners spend much of their time in front of a screen, why not use that time to improve their literacy by turning on closed captions?

Closed Captions for Learning a Second Language

Similarly, students watching captioned videos to learn a second language have shown improvements in reading and listening comprehension, word recognition, decoding skills, vocabulary acquisition, and motivation (Evmenova, 2008; King, 2002; Shea, 2000).

Tips for Teaching with Accessible Video

Learning from video happens when learners interact with both the medium and the content in ways that align with the learning goals. Cara Wilmot, Deaf Education and Transition Coordinator for Florida’s Resource Materials and Technology Center: Deaf/Hard of Hearing (RMTC-DHH), recommends a number of strategies for creating more active, minds-on engagement with instructional videos:

  • Use video as a hook to introduce a unit or lesson: the video can preview key concepts and ideas to come later in a lesson and pique student’s interest in the topic.
  • Practice listening, predicting and summarizing skills: these skills can transfer from video to other forms of media and contribute to students’ overall literacy.
  • Provide writing prompts:  the prompts can spark student curiosity for the content and drive discussion on topics that interest and engage them.
  • Activate and provide background knowledge: the videos can bring the setting for an event or story to life for students.

Cara emphasizes the need to incorporate both pre-viewing and post-viewing questions to frame the content in the videos and drive classroom discussion.

Video for Flipped Learning and Assessment

With flipped learning, students use video and other digital materials at home to replace the direct instruction or lecture that traditionally takes place in the classroom. The purpose of flipped learning is to free up class time for discussion, hands-on experimentation and other interactive activities that support meaning-making. The Flipped Learning Network is a good resource for learning more about this instructional practice.

Video becomes even more powerful in the hands of students as content creators. The tools for creating and sharing video have become easier to acquire and learn, making video a viable means for assessing student learning. It can be used as an alternative form of assessment for students who struggle with written expression or as a more engaging alternative for in-class book reports, presentations of final projects and more. 

Captions for Search Engine Optimization

Captions can help with marketing and outreach efforts through improved Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Search engines can only analyze text when figuring out how to rank content in search results. As a text alternative, captions can increase the information that is available to search engines. There is also evidence that captioned content has a higher level of engagement from the audience. According to one metric, YouTube videos show more views (13% in first 2 weeks, 7% more lifetime) when they are captioned (Source: Discovery Digital Networks).