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Does the ADA Require Captions for Internet Videos?

Jun 28, 2023

According to Accessibility.com, at least 2,387 web accessibility lawsuits were filed in 2022. Those lawsuits were either filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or California’s Unruh Act; any violation of the ADA is considered a violation of the Unruh Act. 

While the plaintiffs cited a variety of issues, multimedia accessibility is a common point of concern. In 2015, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and other plaintiffs settled a lawsuit with Netflix, which cited a lack of captions for certain featured movies and TV shows. 

That prompts an interesting question: Does the ADA require captions for internet videos — and if so, how can businesses make sure that they’re compliant?

Per the ADA, multimedia must be accessible for users with hearing disabilities

Title III of the ADA applies to “places of public accommodation,” including private businesses, while Title II applies to federal government agencies and their contractors.

Both sections of the law require digital accessibility, per guidance from the Department of Justice (DOJ). However, the ADA doesn’t include technical specifications for websites — and the law doesn’t explicitly require captions for online content.

With that said, the DOJ specifically mentions captions in its guidance on web accessibility

“People with hearing disabilities may not be able to understand information communicated in a video if the video does not have captions,” the website notes. 

Related: DOJ Announces Title II Web Accessibility Regulations Are Coming: What’s It Mean?

WCAG conformance is a reasonable standard for ADA compliance

To improve ADA compliance, the DOJ recommends following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility. 

This isn’t a strict requirement of the ADA — businesses could technically comply with the law without ever referencing WCAG — but the guidelines provide a simple, harmonized framework for testing content.

WCAG 2.1 requires captions under two Success Criteria (SC):

  • WCAG 2.1 SC 1.2.2, “Captions (Prerecorded)” - Requires captions for all prerecorded audio in synchronized media, except when the media is a media alternative for text and is clearly labeled as such. 
  • WCAG 2.1 SC 1.2.4, “Captions (Live)” - Requires captions for all live audio content in synchronized media. This criterion is specific to presentations — internal company communications (such as two-way video calls) generally do not need captions.

The bottom line: Captions are required under the ADA. While the law lacks technical standards, the DOJ has clearly identified captions as a requirement — and WCAG provides clear guidance for digital compliance.

Related: Avoid These 4 Mistakes When Writing Video Captions for Accessibility

Create captions for all videos — and make sure the captions are accurate

An estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide experience hearing loss in at least one ear. Others may simply prefer to read captions; if you’re viewing a video in a crowded environment, turning up the volume may be impractical. 

Captions are required under the ADA, but they’re also essential for keeping users engaged with your content. To fulfill WCAG requirements and provide viewers with the best possible experience, captions must be: 

  • Accurate - Misspellings, misidentified words, and poor punctuation can make captions useless, particularly for people who use assistive technology (AT). 
  • Complete - Captions should include descriptions of all important audio, including dialogue, musical cues, and important sound effects.
  • Synchronized - Captions must be synchronized with visual media. Otherwise, the viewer may not be able to identify the person speaking or the significance of audio cues.

It’s important to remember that captions are not required when the media is an alternative for text. For example, if you provide a text manual for a product along with a video of a speaker reading the manual, you don’t need captions — just make sure that users can easily find the text version.

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

Video transcripts serve a different purpose than captions

Video transcripts can be useful for users with vision disabilities, cognitive differences, and other conditions; captions are useful for people with hearing loss. To accommodate as many users as possible, you should provide both captions and transcripts.

That may seem like a lot of work — but if you think about captions and transcripts when drafting your video scripts, you won’t need to spend much time on these accommodations. Additionally, transcripts can improve your website’s search engine optimization (SEO) by providing all of your videos' content in plain text. 

For more guidance, download our free Video Accessibility Checklist. This one-page guide helps you avoid common mistakes that impact video accessibility — and improve compliance with the ADA, the Unruh Act, and other non-discrimination laws.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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