Accessible Multimedia: Providing Greater Accessibility for All

According to the National Institute of Health, approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing. As the percentage of aging Americans increases, the number of individuals experiencing hearing loss also continues to increase.

Accessible multimedia benefits individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, but it also benefits individuals with other disabilities and the general public as well. For example, noisy environments such as the gym and the airport provide greater access to the general public when captions are displayed. Providing audio description benefits individuals who are blind and have low vision. Audio description can also benefit individuals whose native language is not English, or who have learning disabilities.

What Is Accessible Multimedia?

The term “accessible multimedia” is being used in this context as equal access to audio-video content such as movies, movie clips and online course materials. The various methods in which multimedia can be made accessible include the following:

  • Audio Description
    This is an additional audio track that provides descriptive narration of key visual elements. Audio Description is intended primarily for blind and visually impaired individuals.
  • Closed Captioning
    This involves a process of displaying several lines of text synchronized with the audio track. Closed captions typically appear near the bottom of a video, and either pop-on or roll up. Closed captions are typically verbatim and sometimes include descriptions of non-speech elements as well. Closed captioning can be turned on or off as needed.
  • Open Captioning
    This process is very similar to closed captioning, with one fundamental difference: it does not offer a choice of turning the captions on or off, since the words for a video are imprinted onto the video itself and cannot be removed.

What Does the Law Say About Accessible Multimedia?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is recognized as one of the most sweeping American anti-discrimination bills to be passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA was designed to protect individuals against discrimination on the basis of disability, such as “places of public accommodation” indicated in Title III.

The ADA was created prior to the technological revolution we live in today. Clear guidelines have been established regarding the physical environment such as doorways, signage, and wheelchair ramps. As more governmental services, education, and commerce take place online courts are beginning to recognize that in many cases online environments can also function as places of public accommodation.

In March of this year, a U.S. district court in Vermont refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Scribd, an eBook and PDF-hosting site. It was successfully argued that the Internet should be a place of accommodation under the ADA. On April 1st of this year, a federal appeals court ruled that the ADA did not apply to Netflix, since it was not a physical structure, and therefore should not be considered a “place of public accommodation.”

In another case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reached a settlement this month with edX Inc., the Harvard and MIT provider of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). The settlement agreement lays out a number of requirements that edX must comply with in order to become more accessible, some of which include accessibility of their web and mobile apps which must be implemented within an 18-month period. This also includes multimedia content. To read more about this case, visit Justice Department Reaches Settlement with edX Inc

A number of laws other than the ADA exist that also apply directly to accessible multimedia. They include the following:

Section 255

  • Requires telecommunications products and services to be accessible for people with disabilities
  • Accessibility is required if it is “readily achievable," meaning easily accomplishable, without much difficulty or expense involved
  • If not “readily achievable,” companies must design products to be compatible with adaptive equipment used by people with disabilities

Section 508 (1998 Amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973)

  • Federal law mandating that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible for people with disabilities
  • Specific Requirements for accessible multimedia exists within the Section 508 standards

Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA)

  • Federal communications law to increase the access of persons with disabilities to modern communications
  • Title I: Addresses communications access to make products and services using Broadband fully accessible to people with disabilities
  • Title II: Makes it easier for people with disabilities to view video programming on television and the Internet

508 Refresh, (ICT Refresh)

On February 18, 2015, the United States Access Board released a proposed rule that will update 508 Standards and the 255 Guidelines. The Access Board is receiving public comments until May 28th, 2015. For additional details regarding the proposed rule, visit: About the Proposed Refresh

WCAG 2.0

  • Part of a series of web accessibility guidelines published in 2008 by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the internet
  • Level A, AA, and AAA
  • Specific guidelines related to Captions and Audio Description or Media Alternative for Synchronized Multimedia

Tips and Strategies for Creating Accessible Multimedia

The following are some tips and strategies for incorporating accessible multimedia into your accessibility plan and to meet compliance expectations:


  • Establish a timeline to move forward.
  • Establish a method to prioritize media. Note: Begin with public facing media.
  • Identify the media used by current users/students and add captions and possibly a description.
  • Identify the media to be used in the future and add captions and possibly description.
  • Identify the training needs of employees. (e.g., ethics training videos, recorded training media).
  • Identify future media initiatives and develop a plan for creating accessible media for these initiatives.

Multimedia online (Audio)

  • Provide transcript of audio portion and load as a text file. Ensure that the transcript is easy to locate near the audio symbol or link.

Videos Created by Your Agency

  • Build in time to create captioning for access after the video or demonstration is filmed.
  • Create a script of what you are going to say and stick to the script. (Dragon Dictate can be useful for script preparation.) The script can be edited for accuracy and may become the transcript used for captions.
  • Videos may be uploaded to YouTube (wait to turn video public) along with the transcript. Or allow You Tube to create a transcript. Download the transcript from You Tube and edit for accuracy. Be sure to add sound effects and speaker identification. Re-upload the accurate transcript to YouTube and adjust timecodes if necessary.
  • Presenters should describe demonstrations or visual elements while filming the video. Good description included from the beginning, may eliminate the need to create audio descriptions in post-production and is more interesting for all viewers.
  • Amara and DotSub are two popular online tools that allow you to caption and transcribe your video and audio content for free. YouTube also has services providing both captioning and transcripts for your multimedia content. Our organization, AMAC, also provide services for captioning and transcribing multimedia content.

Accessible Multimedia & Captioning

View the recent webinar Accessible Multimedia & Captioning featuring Sheryl Ballenger, Manager of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services with AMAC Accessibility Solutions and Research Center. She presents on the importance of providing captioning of multimedia on websites and video hosting sites. She also provides participants with a number of tools and techniques that are widely available.

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