Accessibility is on the radar of many organisations, and rightly so.

Legislation mandates that public transport, premises and education must be accessible for all, including people with disability. However, what we often see provided is just the minimum required to achieve compliance. Accessibility has, in some ways, become a ‘compliance’ issue.

Inclusive design and universal design go beyond accessibility minimum requirements and attempt to provide environments, products and services that cater for everyone’s own unique abilities. One accessibility area that is constantly overlooked is captioning and audio descriptions in media.

Captions are text and sound descriptions provided in a video, which are synchronised with the media, and visible or available to be read while watching the video. They’ve often been described as same language subtitles, but this isn’t technically correct as captions assume that the viewer won’t be able to hear any audio. Therefore, captions are provided for the spoken word, but they also describe relevant sound effects that are important to the plot and introduce each speaker. Captions are synchronised to display the text information in time with the audio played in the video. This is very important for the deaf community, those with reduced hearing, people from non-English speaking backgrounds and in environments with a lot of background noise.

Audio descriptions are a narration of the media for the blind community and other people with low vision. The narrator will relay the visual imagery to the listener and describe what is happening, preferably during the natural pauses in audio.

accessibilityIn 2010, a consortium of cinema companies lodged an application to the Australian Human Rights Commission requesting a temporary exemption from their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA). They sought an “exemption in relation to the provision of open captions of films for people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment and audio description of films for people who are blind or have a vision impairment.” The application was refused by the Commission, and cinemas and theatres are now moving forward to address their obligations under the DDA, with open captioning and audio description sessions.

Similarly, the Australian Government, Broadcasting Services (Television Captioning) Standard 2013 ensures captions are provided by all commercial broadcasters, national broadcasters and subscription television broadcasters and narrowcasters. The standard requires captions to be meaningful to deaf viewers and viewers with reduced hearing, and they must be readable, accurate, and comprehensible so that they can be meaningful to viewers.

There are a vast range of other public places and workplaces where video media can be shown, which falls under the general mechanisms of the DDA. This means it is a significant risk for any organisation that fails to caption their videos.

Captions can be provided in two forms: closed captions or open captions.

Closed captioning allows a viewer to switch the captions on and off. This might be reasonable for a video watched online, on YouTube, or when watching a TV show, but in a public space, waiting room, or training environment, open captions are better.

accessibilityOpen captions are hard-coded and burned directly into the video and are always visible for everyone to see, which means you can’t turn them off. These can be added live during a performance or added post-production.

Open captions align well to the field of universal design. Universal design has been described as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

There are seven principles of universal design:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

Principles 1, 3, 4 and 5 are relevant to providing an inclusive environment with the use of open captions in video and film media.

There are a number of great reasons to consider providing open captions in any group or public environment:

  • One in six people in Australia are affected by some degree of hearing loss
  • It’s the right thing to do, and presents as good corporate citizenship
  • People retain more information
  • Those who speak English as a second language can follow along
  • Speakers with a thick accent can be understood by all
  • They are effective in busy, noisy and confusing environments
  • Search engines love captions, as they have more content to analyse for key work content
  • In some cases, people will watch online video content without speakers (such as workplaces)
  • Some people just enjoy watching with the captions
  • Captions reduce the risk of complaints, bad press or excluding some people.

Anyone showing videos in public places must start to provide open captions. This includes advertising, company promotions, training videos, medical centres, exhibition and conferences and the like.

If you want to send a clear message to a more diverse audience, and achieve better results, open captioning can help.