Video Accessibility

The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

Video accessibility refers to the practice of making video content usable and comprehensible for all viewers, including those with disabilities. This encompasses a broad range of impairments, from hearing and vision impairments to cognitive and motor disabilities. The primary goal is to ensure that everyone, irrespective of their abilities, can access, understand, and benefit from video content.

In today's digital age, videos have become a dominant form of communication, used for everything from entertainment and news to education and marketing. As such, ensuring their accessibility is not just a matter of inclusivity but also of equal rights. When videos are made accessible, they break down barriers and allow for a more inclusive digital landscape where information, stories, and knowledge are universally shared.

Moreover, video accessibility is not just about catering to those with permanent disabilities. It can also benefit individuals with temporary impairments, such as someone recovering from eye surgery, or situational limitations, like watching a video in a noisy environment. Thus, accessible video design is a holistic approach that considers the diverse needs of all viewers.

Press here to download a comprehensive video accessibility checklist.

Key features of accessible videos

Accessible videos ensure that all users, regardless of their abilities, can understand and engage with multimedia content. To achieve this, several features and considerations are essential:

  • Captions: Synchronized text representations of the audio content, making sure that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing can grasp the video's message
  • Audio descriptions: An additional narration that describes significant visual elements not discernible from the main soundtrack, beneficial for users with vision impairments (e.g., blindness). There are two primary types of audio descriptions: standard and extended. Standard audio descriptions are heard during existing gaps in a video’s original audio track. Conversely, extended audio descriptions are applied when the gaps in the original audio track aren’t long enough to properly convey the information appearing on screen. In this case, the video will pause, and during this time an audio description will play, describing what is taking place on screen
  • Transcripts: A complete text version of the video content, including spoken dialogue and non-speech elements like sound effects. This is useful for those who prefer reading at their own pace or can't access the video content for various reasons
  • Clear visual content: Videos should be devoid of elements like rapid flashes that can cause seizures or other physical reactions
  • Keyboard-accessible controls: Video player controls, such as play, pause, and volume adjustments, should be usable via a keyboard for those who can't use a mouse
  • Sign language interpretation: For audiences where sign language is a primary mode of communication, videos might incorporate a sign language interpreter

Main benefactors from accessible videos

Accessible videos, while designed with inclusivity in mind, offer benefits to those within certain disabilities, as well as to those outside of those communities. They cater to a wide range of audiences, ensuring that video content is universally consumable. Here's a closer look at the primary benefactors:

  • Individuals with hearing impairments: Captions are a game-changer for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. They provide a textual representation of the audio, ensuring that the message is conveyed effectively. This allows viewers to follow along with dialogue, understand context (including music and sound effects), and engage with the content
  • People with vision impairments: Audio descriptions fill in the visual gaps for those with vision impairments. By narrating significant visual elements, these descriptions ensure that the storyline or message remains coherent and comprehensive
  • People with cognitive and learning disabilities: Transcripts and clear visual content can aid those with cognitive challenges by offering alternative ways to process information. For instance, someone might find it easier to understand content by reading a transcript rather than watching a video
  • Non-native speakers: Captions assist non-native speakers by providing a written version of the video's dialogue, improving understanding and deepening their engagement with the content
  • Viewers in noisy or quiet environments: Whether someone is watching a video in a bustling cafe or a silent library, captions enable them to follow consume videos without depending on the audio. This method of consuming video, especially with captions, has become increasingly popular among younger audiences, many of whom often prefer to watch videos on mute
  • General audiences: Beyond specific user groups, accessible video features like captions benefit all viewers. They contribute to a more user-friendly and engaging viewing experience. It is worth noting that accessible videos can lead to considerable SEO benefits, as well

Video accessibility in accessibility legislation

The push for accessible video content is not just a matter of inclusivity and user experience; it's also a legal imperative in many jurisdictions. Central to this movement is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a comprehensive set of guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which are generally viewed as the most influential protocol relating to web accessibility. Within WCAG, there are specific guidelines and success criteria that pertain to video content, emphasizing features like captions, audio descriptions, and more.

Specific legislation, such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the U.S. and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in Canada, set WCAG as the benchmark for digital accessibility. Section 508 mandates that all information and communication technology (ICT) procured and maintained by federally-funded organizations (and service providers to such bodies) be accessible. Similarly, AODA requires organizations in Ontario to meet certain accessibility standards, including those for web content. 

By aligning with WCAG, these laws inherently demand accessible video content.

Furthermore, many U.S. courts now apply the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to online spaces. Adding weight to this interpretation, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has, in an official letter, referred to WCAG as the standard to which websites should conform under the ADA. Thus, to fully comply with the ADA, most businesses need to ensure their online content, including their videos, conforms with the sections of WCAG that apply to them.

Looking ahead: the future of video accessibility

As technology continues to evolve, so does the landscape of accessible video content. The future promises even more sophisticated tools and methodologies that aim to make videos universally accessible, ensuring that no one is left behind. Prominent developing technologies include, but aren't limited to:

  • AI-driven captions: Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to revolutionize the way captions are generated. Instead of relying on manual input, advanced algorithms can automatically transcribe spoken words with high accuracy, even in videos with multiple speakers or background noise. This not only speeds up the captioning process but also ensures that the transcriptions are more accurate and contextually relevant. It is worth noting that because technology has not fully developed, auto-generated captions can still contain errors. Therefore, they must be reviewed and edited manually 
  • Immersive accessible experiences: With the rise of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), there's a growing emphasis on making these immersive experiences accessible. This includes developing techniques to provide audio descriptions for visual elements in a 3D space or tactile feedback for users with hearing impairments
  • Universal design principles: The concept of universal design, where products and environments are designed to be usable by all people without the need for adaptation, is gaining traction. In the context of videos, this means creating content that is inherently accessible from the outset, rather than retrofitting accessibility features

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