The purpose of this policy resource is to inform organisations about the relevance and importance of the implementation of video accessibility legislation for people with disability. Video accessibility implementation revolves around captions and audio description. Captions are defined as text versions of speech and other important audio content, enabling accessibility for individuals who are deaf, hearing impaired or require aid to hear all of the audio. According to WebAim, accessible captions should be synchronised, equivalent and accessible, thus requiring the captions to appear at the same time as the corresponding audio, and be readily available for those who need them.
Captioning comes in two forms: opened and closed, with the most common type being closed captions. SBS defines closed captions as captions that can be hidden (thus closed), until they are ‘opened’ by the viewer, essentially meaning that closed captions can be turned on or off. Unlike subtitles, a term which generally applies to translated dialogue for media in a foreign language, captions include descriptions of important non-dialogue audio like “music” or “sighs”. Many countries legally require both live and pre-recorded television programs to be closed-captioned. Open captions have the same content as closed captions, but are permanent and can’t be turned off. Whether captions are open or closed, the media producer has control over the way the captions appear, including the location of the captions, their size, font, colour and duration.
Audio description assists in the perception of visual-only content for individuals with a vision disability, and this service is necessary for conformance to WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2 Level AA. It involves a narrator describing the presented visual-only content on the screen, which can be provided with the primary video, or alternatively, can be a different version of the video which includes audio descriptions. WebAim also emphasises that it is essential for visual content within multimedia to be described through audio in order for multimedia to be optimally accessible to vision impaired users.
Video accessibility is a requirement according to the advisory note from the Australian Human Rights Commission. For more information refer to our ‘policies section’ below regarding the Advisory Note and section 24 of the Disability Discrimination Act. In Australia captioning is widely available on television and streaming services. However, Australia has limited audio description on television (the major exception being audio described programs on ABC and SBS). Australian Netflix has some audio description, which is primarily due to the US CVAA (21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act) legislation, which impacted on Netflix’s accessibility provision in America, and this has flowed through to its service in Australia. For more information please refer to our ‘international policies’ section below.
Existing policies and legislation
Broadcasting Services Act 1992
In Australia, the only policy and legislation for the provision of captioning applies to television, which is covered in the BSA (Broadcasting Services Act 1992). However some international legislation, particularly the US CVAA, has impacted on the provision of captioning and audio description on Australian digital media, particularly streaming services. Australian broadcasters have been increasingly adding closed captioning to their programs due to provisions in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. This law gave Parliament the right to establish codes of practice that include captioning of programs for the hearing impaired. In 1999, the BSA’s title was amended with “(Online Services)” to cover digital television in addition to radio broadcasting. Additional amendments passed in 2001 and 2010 adjusted the requirements for how much free-to-air television programming needed captioning, and established timeframes for compliance.
Rehabilitation Act 1973
Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act 1973 requires federal agencies to develop, procure, maintain and use information and communications technology (ICT) such as online training and websites, that is accessible to everyone, including the disabled – regardless of whether or not they work for the federal government. The US Access Board established the standards implementing the law and provides the requirements for accessibility. This means that employees with disabilities are able to work on accessible computers, phones and equipment in their offices, take online training or access the agency’s internal website. Additionally, a person with a disability applying for a job with the federal government or a person using an agency’s website to get information about a program, or completing an online form has access to the same accessible resources available to anyone.
The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA)
The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) is an American act signed in 2010, as a form of telecommunications protection for people with disability. It follows a series of laws from the 1980s and 1990s, created to ensure that television and telephone services are accessible to all disabled Americans, with the addition of modernising accessibility laws to keep pace with broadband technologies, by bringing them up to date with 21st century technologies, including new digital, broadband, and mobile innovations. The CVAA is split into two broad sections called titles. Title 1 addresses telecommunications access to make products and services using broadband fully accessible to people with disability. Title 2 addresses video programming and breaks new ground to make it easier for people with disability to view programming on television and the Internet. Both sections include provisions to ensure that people with disability have access to emergency information. Despite an absence of similar legislation locally, the impacts of these foreign requirements will penetrate the Australian market. In Australia, the example set by the CVAA has warranted recommendations by the ACMA and Media Access Australia.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, highlights of the CVAA are as follows. Title 1 (regarding telecommunications access) requires advanced communication services (which include interconnected voice over internet protocol (VoIP) service, non-interconnected VoIP service, electronic messaging service and interoperable video conferencing service) and products to be accessible for those with disability. This includes text messaging, video communications and emails. It also requires access to web browsers on mobile devices by people who are vision impaired or blind. This section creates industry recordkeeping obligations; requires changes to complaint and enforcement procedures; tightens deadlines for the FCC to respond to consumer complaints; requires biennial reporting by the FCC to Congress; and directs the Comptroller General to issue a five-year report on the FCC’s implementation. It requires an FCC clearinghouse on accessible communications services and equipment. It applies the hearing aid compatibility mandates to telephone-like equipment used with advanced communications services. It updates the definition of telecommunications relay services (TRS) to include people who are deaf-blind and to allow communication between and among different types of relay users. It requires interconnected and non-interconnected VoIP service providers to contribute to the Interstate TRS Fund. It directs the allocation of up to $10 million per year from the Interstate TRS Fund for the distribution of specialised equipment to low-income people who are deaf-blind, to enable these individuals to access telecommunications service, Internet access service, and advanced communications, and it authorises FCC action to ensure reliable and interoperable access to next generation 9‑1‑1 services by people with disabilities.
For Title 2 (regarding video programming) this section restores audio description rules promulgated by the FCC in 2000 and authorises some expansion of those obligations over the next 10+ years. It requires video programming that is closed captioned on TV to be closed captioned when distributed on the Internet (but does not cover programs shown only on the Internet). It establishes deadlines for the FCC to respond to requests for exemption from the closed captioning rules. It requires video programming distributors, providers, and owners to convey emergency information in a manner that is accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. It expands the requirement for video programming equipment (equipment that shows TV programs) to be capable of displaying closed captions, to devices with screens smaller than 13 inches (e.g., portable TVs, laptops, smart phones), and requires these devices to be able to pass through audio descriptions and emergency information that is accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired, if technically feasible and achievable. It requires devices designed to record TV programs to pass through closed captions, audio description, and emergency information so viewers are able to turn on/off the closed captions and video description when the TV program is played back, if achievable. It requires interconnection mechanisms (cables) to carry (from the source device to the consumer equipment, e.g. a TV set) the information necessary to permit the display of closed captions and make audio description and emergency information audible. It requires user controls for TVs and other video programming devices to be accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired and requires TVs and other video programming devices to have a button, key, icon, or comparable mechanism designated for activating closed captioning and audio description. It requires on-screen text menus and program guides displayed on TV by set-top boxes to be accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired and requires set-top boxes to have a button, key, icon, or comparable mechanism designated for activating closed captioning (when built-in to the set-top box).