Video Accessibility Problems

February 19, 2007

Topics: Accessibility, Web Development.

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:

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11 Comments on “Video Accessibility Problems”

  1. after a long and deep interview with the owners of the trade center, and the mossad agents that were caught on 911, and were released, i would be interested in this suspect too.

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  2. Good article. As far as technological awareness goes, I just wanted to let you know of a nice piece of s/w that I’ve been using that makes video captioning very easy to do and it will export to most popular formats as well. It is called MovieCaptioner and is available on both Mac and Windows platforms. The learning curve is pretty small, in fact I have my office assistant working on captioning during her down time. They have a video on their website that will get you started using it in a few minutes, and there is a free 14 day demo you can download. Here is their link:
    Hoping more people will get on board with captioning and see that it is just another step in the process of creating and sharing video, not an afterthought!

  3. @Dennis Technically, this is an article about video accessibility (inherent problems with video content), rather than an article about web accessibility, but the point is worth mentioning.

  4. Another basic problem of video accessibility is keyboard access – Flash video players in general and HTML5 video controls in Chrome and Safari.

  5. Sorry for commenting on a very old post but I think I had to make a point.

    @ Deaf User

    Abdur Rahman does not look like a native English Speaker. I am also not a native English speaker. We don’t really know the subtle differences in meanings of words and hence can make mistakes when making a sentence. I am saying this because I see a lot or People with English as their mother language complaining about incorrect usage of English words.

    You have to know that major part of the world does not Speak or Understand English the same way as Native English Speakers do.

    On accessibility, I agree it’s not problem of cost or technology but of social awareness.

    For example in my part of the world we are insensitive to the needs of ANY people with disabilities. Our universities, shopping malls, airports, and other public places are devoid of any facilities for special people.

    I hope leaders of the world spend some money to raise the awareness.

  6. It is amazing how much the focus of a lot of practical web accessibility is purely on the visually disabled — it demonstrates a clear bias for doing what’s easy.

    “Easy” is such a dangerous approach to take. You see a lot of articles along the lines of “7 easy ways to improve accessibility” — they always comment on alt attributes and never mention captioning or transcription. Technically, it’s not significantly more difficult to add alt attributes than to add transcription, but the scope of work is much greater. People are lazy, and it makes for unfortunate compromises.

    I appreciate your comment! Since this article is almost three years old, I suspect that Abdulrehman won’t be reading your advice, but I’m always glad to re-visit past articles.

  7. Joe Dolson:

    Great post. I especially loved this part:

    A lack of technological awareness is part of the problem: but I think that the greater issue is a lack of social awareness.

    Exactly! As a deaf person, I feel annoyed when I attend workshops on accessibility, and web specialists love repeating about how to add “alt” attributes to images, but a very few if any ever think about providing transcripts and captions for audio components of videos and podcasts. I raise my hand every time they talk about how “fully accessible” their websites are except for that media. They whine how expensive it is to add transcripts or embed captions. I disagree. As long as they have that social awareness that you had explained about, they would find effective ways to implement those technical solutions.

    After all, the concept of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” would apply there. If web owners stop complaining about how “expensive” it is to provide text alternatives, they may invest some money in the beginning, but in the long run they would benefit much more from that by improving their site’s search indexing. Also, if the site has a lot of long videos and audio, transcripts would definitely make it easier for any users to control the speed of reading the written information.

    To Abdulrehman:

    To let you know, the word “handicapped” is no longer used in descriptions about people with disabilities. Please be careful when choosing words. Some words may offend us. We do not like to perceive ourselves as weak and deserve to be respected. There’s a concept called “people first language” that describes us as people first, not our disabilities:

    Please research more on proper terminology.

  8. In fact, no, I don’t think that the web is evolving towards podcasts and video. Although the use of both audio and video media is certainly trending to expand, I firmly believe that there will always remain a significant – and probably greater – portion of the web which is available in plain text.

    Moreover, if you keep the handicapped people aside videos are in a way more easy for both reader and blogger(in case of a blog). Although we need to think more on this topic.

    Regardless of the obvious problem with this statement – the assumption that it is in any way acceptable to decide to “leave out” disabled populations – I have to take issue with the idea that videos are easier for both reader and blogger. They may absolutely be easier for some readers or bloggers, but to state that they’re easier for all is patently absurd.

    Speaking for myself, I will generally NOT choose to watch a video if there is a text equivalent available. I simply don’t have the time to waste on video when I can get the information in text.

  9. You certainly do have a point there but don’t you think that podcasts and screencasts is eventually what the web is involving into. I’m not raising a big discussion but as you mentioned that the blind can’t see the video, then they can’t read the plain text either. If someone has epileptic photosensitivity, it’s not essentially there to be in videos, what about the Google Ads or other made in flash? They could also contain something like that.

    I do agree when you say the deaf will not be able to hear but putting in subtitles would be a good enough to constitute that. Moreover, if you keep the handicapped people aside videos are in a way more easy for both reader and blogger(in case of a blog). Although we need to think more on this topic.

  10. That’s certainly one of the issues which slows people from retrofitting a site! It’s true; once the initial hurdle of discovering and learning accessible development methods is passed, the generalities of designing an accessible website are fairly minor.

    Creating accessible content, once you’ve gone beyond plain HTML (HyperText Markup Language) text, is a much more time consuming process — and, specifically, it’s always going to be time consuming. You don’t learn how to do it then find it easy, because it’s not replacing a previous task. Making multimedia content accessible is an additive task to the other processes of content creation.

    Thanks, Adrian!

  11. I think the biggest actual problem that comes up here is time.
    We always talk about making it as easy as possible for someone to use a web site, we praise apps like WordPress for making it easier for people to set up their own blog etc….

    So we know people are kind of lazy, and though they may come out with things like ‘oh blind people aren’t our audience’ or whatever, but that’s mainly trying to justify the fact that they don’t want to add extra time and complexity to the process of adding video to a web site.

    I think there’s a lot more chance of getting people to use accessible HTML (HyperText Markup Language) code than there is to get them to create accessible content all the time.