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Do I Really Need Audio Descriptions for ADA Compliance?

May 22, 2024

An audio description (AD) provides people with another way to understand multimedia. By selecting the AD track, they can hear all of the visual information from your videos — info about the characters, actions, or scene that isn’t otherwise available. If the visitor has a vision disability, the AD track may be essential for accessibility. 

It’s also vital for compliance: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws require organizations to make digital content accessible.

But when compared with captions and transcripts, audio descriptions are relatively rare on the internet. Here’s why a missing AD track could be a liability — and how to determine whether your videos need a separate audio description.

Audio description tracks can be crucial for digital compliance

Let’s start with the most common question that accessibility experts receive about audio descriptions: Are they really that important for compliance?

The quick answer is yes. The long answer: As of April 2024, the Justice Department has identified the Level AA standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1 as the official requirements for Title II of the ADA. Title II applies to state and local government agencies, not private organizations, but Title III applies to the private sector. 

WCAG has been cited in numerous web accessibility lawsuits as evidence of Title III violations, and the Justice Department recommends using WCAG to test for compliance.

WCAG explicitly requires audio descriptions for prerecorded content in Success Criterion (SC) 1.2.5, “Audio Description (Prerecorded).” Here’s the full text of that criterion:

Audio description is provided for all prerecorded video content in synchronized media.

 

This is a Level AA criterion; Level AA is considered a reasonable standard for digital accessibility. Learn more about WCAG conformance levels.

So, if your videos have no AD track, will you face an expensive web accessibility lawsuit? Potentially — but not necessarily.

Some videos do not need separate audio description tracks

As WCAG notes, if all of the information in the video track is already provided in the audio track, no audio description is necessary. For example, if you have a product demonstration video with a single actor describing the product and how it works, you probably don’t need an AD track; all of the relevant information is already there. 

For many organizations, the most practical solution is to write dialogue that tells the viewer everything they need to know. When drafting, ask yourself whether the dialogue would work on its own — if it doesn’t, ask why, then revise your script to include relevant details. 

This approach eliminates the need for a separate AD track, and — like many accessibility improvements — it has benefits for all users. If someone isn’t paying attention to the visuals, or if the visual elements are confusing, the audio track will fill in the gaps. 

My videos have captions. Do they need an audio description track?

Captions are important, but they serve an entirely different audience than audio descriptions. AD tracks are primarily intended for people with vision disabilities; captions are primarily intended for people with hearing disabilities. 

What if I provide transcripts for all of my video content?

Providing transcripts can be helpful for all users, and transcripts qualify as a text alternative for WCAG’s Level A conformance level. However, to meet Level AA, you’ll need audio descriptions, and most organizations should aim for Level AA. 

Related: What’s the Acceptable Format for Media Captions and Transcripts? 

Think about audio when scripting your videos

Depending on the complexity of your videos, you may need to include audio descriptions. Otherwise, you’re taking a legal risk (and providing a subpar experience for individuals with disabilities). 

But here’s the good news: Recording an AD track isn’t especially difficult, and if you think about accessibility when creating multimedia, you won’t need to do much additional work. In another article, we provided quick tips for writing AD tracks, and any video player that supports multiple tracks will be able to support AD. 

For more accessibility compliance tips, read our Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility or send us a message to connect with an expert. 

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