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.

  • In public places or workplaces, it is not realistic to enable individual people to control their individual experiences, then open captions are a great idea.

    If not, I think that closed captions are much better. I have lost count of the amount of times I have watched instructional videos on YouTube and the caption has obscured what is actually being demonstrated, creating a situation whereby nobody can actually see what the video in question is actually talking about (maybe they can be turned off, I have just never worked out how to do it). Besides, when watching movies or videos, captions can detract from the 'mood' of what is being shown. When viewing the climax of a horror film, or the excitement of, say, a white water rafting or scuba diving video, this can detract substantially from the experience.

    Bottom line, where individual control of the user experience is possible, then closed captions work best. If not, open captions are the only realistic option.

  • Live captioning, such as that on the TV News can be obstructive to the pertinent viewing area, say of displaying an item (food on a plate, or a diamond ring on the Antiques Roadshow) and can also over-write on other titles such as a person's name. But where the captions are pre-recorded, there is time and opportunity to place the captions appropriately. I've seen this done. But as a user of closed captioning, I don't care that the words might pre-empt the scene or the answer (as in quiz shows such as Spicks and Specks) because without them I don't get the scene at all! The option for closed captioning is not always available (airport lounges, pub bars) so it would be good to have it automatically. Closed captioning for films and tv shows can be an option, but many tv sets make you go through several screens to turn it on and off as required. Captioning has improved my enjoyment of tv programs immensely, especially for dialogue that is mumbled or where I cannot lip read (the back of someone's head) when they are speaking! Deafness and hard of hearing is the most common disability in Australia – 1 in 6 people.

  • Awesome arguments in favour of accessibility of media through captioning and audio descriptions. Closed captions in individual spaces are a good option while in pubic places, open captions is the only option. However, what I want to bring out is the challenge as to how to keep the integrity of the video intact while integrating captioning [open or closed]. Can we have the technology that allows sub-titles below the total visual screen rather than on the visual screen? Similarly how to retain the distinctness of dialogues while integrating audio description in a movie. How do we ensure that there is sufficient allowance/ scope of integrating the audio description at the time of production of the video?