Article updated August 11, 2011

  • Updated links
  • Added tools section
  • Extended information about caption support
  • Miscellaneous text edits

In our Web 2.0 times it seems like video sharing has become a social media giant. I can certainly see why – it’s exciting and novel to be able to transmit these magical moving images across time and space! Well, OK…if you put it that way, it’s not all that new. It is, however, spectacularly easy to do today — and that is a major difference.

What isn’t so easy is to make these videos accessible. Video has a number of glaring accessibility problems. There’s nothing especially complicated about these issues — they should be obvious, after all — but accomplishing them at all seems to be beyond the pale at the moment. It’s not that it’s difficult to make video accessible. It’s not that the software to do it, at least in a limited manner, is expensive or difficult to use. It’s mostly two issues: laziness or ignorance.

What are the basic problems?

  • The blind can’t see videos. Audio description of the events is required.
  • The deaf can’t hear the audio tracks accompanying video. Text description of the audio content is required.
  • Video content may feature flashing images or text: videos exhibiting these behaviors should carry warnings for individuals with epileptic photosensitivity or other related problems. (Not really the main focus of this article; but important to mention.)

I’m sure there are additional, more subtle issues that can be raised, as well, but if these three are dealt with we’ve accomplished the fundamental goals.

Why might people skip video accessibility?

The time involved in preparing transcripts and captioning can be substantial, and that may slow down some potential video creators. That’s laziness. I choose to believe that this is the lesser of the two issues: I’m optimistically hoping that most people who are aware of the accessibility issues and care about it will take the time and effort to make it happen. I think the awareness issue is far greater.

Some people will make the assumption that disabled populations won’t be interested in resources which feature aspects related to that person’s impairment. They are ignorant of what interest impaired populations may have in the aspects of that resource which they can access. A visually impaired person may never see you. Does this mean they won’t want to talk to you? No — just don’t expect pointing to be a useful to them. Pointing is a visual gesture: you need to provide audio description of your own actions in conversation. It’s the same in video. The visual elements may not convey any information to a person with a visual impairment, but appropriate audio description and the audio track may still convey all the information that person needs.

A lack of technological awareness is part of the problem: but I think that the greater issue is a lack of social awareness. Once a video resource creator can understand how important accessibility is, the technological barrier is minor. Information on captioning, audio description and transcription is readily available.

One area of captioning which can be very frustrating is the wide variety of supported formats. YouTube supports SBV formatted subtitles; JW Player supports SubRip or Timed Text format, and so on. There are many formats, each different, each used in a different context. Some players only support embedded captions; others require external captions. Knowing valuable tools for handling video captions can make a huge difference!

I think I can understand when a site like YouTube fails to supply all of these accessibility options. The problem with user generated content in video is that the burden of responsibility for these accessibility features falls on the user. The average bedroom webcam self-recorder doesn’t have the knowledge or the capacity to prepare appropriate synchronized captioning or audio description – and YouTube doesn’t offer support for audio descriptions, so unless those are built into the video, they won’t be present. YouTube does offer support for captioning, however, and makes it as easy as possible to add your captions. In fact, if you can prepare a transcription, YouTube will automatically set up your transcription with timings as best they can. (You will almost certainly need to make adjustments, however.)

But that doesn’t excuse it in sites which aren’t dependent on user-generated content are providing embedded video.

A few resources on Video Captioning: