Captioned Internet Videos — An Emerging Issue and Initial Success

Captioned Internet Videos — An Emerging Issue and Initial Success

By John Waldo

January 2010

Editor: There’s a real surge in efforts to make online (and other) videos accessible, and one of the people leading the charge is John Waldo of Wash-CAP. Here are his thoughts on some of the current issues. You can follow John’s activities at

Internet videos are becoming a more important source of information, supplementing and sometimes completely replacing written communication. But too often, the makers of those videos forget about those of us who “hear” with our eyes as well as our ears. Especially with the fairly low-fi computer sound systems, non-captioned videos are often inaccessible to us.

Thanks to the persistence of one of our Wash-CAP members, the Spokane Regional Health District has now captioned all of its informational videos. When you go to the District’s web-site, you can choose between the regular menu of videos or the “closed-captioned” menu — click on the latter, and the videos appear with a “captions” icon that you can turn on or off.

The District originally took the position that written transcripts available upon request would be sufficient. We disagreed. In correspondence with the District, through its Spokane attorneys, we pointed out that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public agencies to make all of their programs and services accessible to people with hearing loss, and the law further requires them to give primary consideration to the method of accessibility being requested. We also pointed out that the time and expense required to furnish a written transcript would be essentially the same as the time and expense required to prepare captions, so there was little money to be saved by their proposed alternative, and much to be gained in terms of more widespread and timely access by our proposed method.

After considering the alternatives, perhaps including our observation that it would cost them a great deal less to caption the videos than to debate the issue in court, the district complied, and now makes its on-line health advisories accessible to everyone.

The whole business of internet accessibility is an increasing concern. A bill introduced in the House of Representatives, H.R. 3101, would address the problem on a federal level. (Read about H.R. 3101 at the website of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology, or COAT). Since government agencies have to make all of their “programs and services” accessible, government-provided videos pretty clearly must be captioned.

The great gap at the moment deals with on-line videos created by private businesses, who are not required to make their programs and services accessible, but only their places of business. Courts are divided on whether a website where goods are sold can be classified as a place of business for purposes of disability laws. The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has said that places of business are brick-and-mortar places only.

However, a federal district court in California has qualified the Ninth Circuit’s rule somewhat by saying that if the inaccessibility of the website actually hinders one’s ability to shop at the brick-and-mortar store, that may be a violation of federal disability law. We believe that logic should apply, at the very least, to on-line instructional videos for products sold at the brick-and-mortar store