With lawsuits in the U.S. such as the National Association of the Deaf against Harvard and MIT and Netflix, there’s increasing pressure to consider online spaces “places of public accommodation” in terms of the ADA and other regulations regarding accessibility. The precedents are murky (Netflix, for example, settled with a legally binding consent decree, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled in an unpublished ruling that the ADA did not in fact apply to Netflix). But it highlights the importance of differentiating between internally and externally facing video when creating your accessibility strategy.*
So the first step, when you consider how to make sure your video content meets accessibility requirements, is to figure out who your audience is.
External audiences are coming to your video content from outside your organization, that is, from the general public. For a business, this might include prospective customers. For a school, this is where MIT and Harvard got themselves into trouble; MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are considered to be accessible to the general public. This also could include smaller groups, as well, such as prospective employees or students. This is important because you have no advance warning for whether a viewer has a disability or not; any viewer at any time could require accommodations.
Internal audiences are a slightly different matter. Here, the videos can only be viewed by a limited and known group of people. Whether the audience consists of employees or students, the organization should be able to tell whether or not the audience includes people with disabilities. Not only that, it can often be predicted if and when a specific video will need to be captioned. For example, a freshman history major is unlikely to need a senior-level engineering course’s videos this year; a salesperson will probably not ever need to watch a walkthrough video explaining how to use the accounting software.
As the cases above illustrate, the online world is increasingly being considered a public space similar to a physical venue. If there is an expectation that the general public will wander in and out of the public online video portal, the trend is now to consider that portal to be like a public building. The same way a building’s owner can be held accountable for access ramps, a video’s producer may be held accountable for making sure videos are captioned.
Organizations have a “duty to accommodate.” So any videos that a person with disabilities needs to be able to watch must be fully accessible to them. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be made accessible; just the materials that will be encountered.
For externally facing materials, organizations need to be proactive, making sure materials are accessible before people encounter them.
Here, it is possible to be reactive, waiting until someone requests help before captioning a video.
But a better idea is to be proactive for internal audiences as well. When possible, having a strategic plan to automatically caption new materials as they’re created instead of waiting for a request for captions will reduce stress and costs from emergency captioning. Perhaps just as important, it will create an atmosphere of support that will make people with disabilities feel like welcomed members of the community.
*As with any legal matter, you should consult with a lawyer familiar with accessibility law when considering your institution’s particular situation. This is intended merely as an introduction to the discussion; a blog post is not legal advice.