TheTwenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act(CVAA) was signed into law in 2010. The Act was written to ensure that people with disabilities would have equal access to “advanced” communication services—namely, digital two-way communication, broadband, video, and mobile products and services. CVAA requirements specify how and where these technologies must be made accessible to people with disabilities.

What are advanced communications services?

According to the CVAA, several different types of services and products are considered “advanced” communications. These fall into two groups, listed under Title I and Title II of the law. Title I (“Communications Access”) includes products and services that connect two human beings to the internet in real time or near-real time, such as email and text messaging services, web-based services, and interoperable video conferencing, as well as mobile devices and browsers. Title II (“Video Programming”) encompasses products and services involved in the delivery of videos over the internet, video playback and recording devices, video distributors, and online streaming services.

Title I of the CVAA states that covered features of laptops, smartphones, tablets, software applications, and even gaming consoles must be usable for and accessible to people with disabilities. Title II CVAA requirements state that video equipment must be capable of displaying closed captioning and video descriptions, and that user controls must be accessible to people with vision and hearing disabilities. It also sets out closed captioning requirements for online videos, audio description requirements for broadcast television, and accessibility requirements for video playback and recording features.

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Why advanced communications need to be accessible

Today, it’s an everyday occurrence to watch a movie online, communicate with others over the internet, and access video playback and recording features, or use a smartphone web browser to check the news.

According to research by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), people are less likely to go online if they have a disability. That’s partly, says the FCC, because of the barriers these individuals encounter while trying to use the internet. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that people with disabilities are about three times more likely than those without disabilities to say they never use the internet.

When barriers to technology are reduced or eliminated, however, people with disabilities can seamlessly engage with products and services to participate, interact, and communicate with others.

Removing barriers to using the internet

Within Title I of the CVAA, any provider of technology, whether it’s a product or a service, must ensure the covered technology is accessible if it connects to the internet—or that third-party assistive technology (AT) is made easily available and supported. This third-party AT can’t be costly for the consumer, however. It’s also prohibited to add features or functions to a product or service if these changes could make it more difficult for people with disabilities to use the technology. Providers must also document the accessibility and compatibility features of their products or services, keep records of compliance, and attest to compliance annually. In addition, contact information must be provided to ensure that people with disabilities can request information or provide feedback regarding the accessibility of a product or service.

It’s important to note that these requirements apply to more than manufacturers. Any company that provides a communications app or service over the internet is considered a “provider of advanced communications services” and is obligated, according to CVAA requirements, to ensure that the app or service is barrier-free.

The best way to ensure accessibility is to design apps and services that follow benchmark standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). It’s also important to note that the CVAA requires that people with disabilities are consulted during design.

Removing accessibility barriers in video

Video is an increasingly popular way to communicate and convey information. It’s a component of virtual business meetings, marketing, education, socializing, and entertainment. It’s also used in the distribution of news and public safety information. If video programming and communication services aren’t accessible, however, not everyone can benefit from the information the video is intended to communicate.

One frequent barrier emphasized in the CVAA requirements is a lack of closed captioning. Closed captioning is a visual display (e.g., a written transcription) of the dialogue, narration and other relevant sounds, such as a knock at the door, that are essential to understanding the video. Closed captioning is a necessity for many people who are deaf or hard of hearing. But it’s also useful for those playing video in a noisy environment or those who don’t want to disturb a quiet space. In fact, several studies conducted around the world, including one by theAustralian Communications Consumer Action Network, reveal a significant number of people who use captions aren’t necessarily using them for hearing-related issues.

Another common accessibility barrier is the lack of video descriptions for people who are blind. A video description is an audio narration of the visual components of a video. Whenever there are pauses in a video’s dialogue, a voice-over describes what is happening visually.

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Complying with CVAA requirements for video

The CVAA details the ways in which online videos need to be made accessible. For example, any programming that is captioned on television must also be captioned when it’s streamed online. And as of July 1, 2017, any internet video clips of “live and near-live” television programming—such as sports events and news programming—must be updated with captioning within a certain time frame.

Failure to comply with the CVAA can be costly. CVAA non-compliance can result in fines of up to $100,000 for each violation, up to a maximum of one million dollars per day.

Although the CVAA requirements do not apply to all online videos at this time, it is expected that regulations will continue to evolveas more and more video content is broadcast online, without first going to television.

Additionally, theAmericans with Disabilities Act(ADA) continues to protect disability rights in situations where CVAA requirements do not yet apply. That’s because the ADA prohibits any kind of discrimination against people with disabilities. Specifically, Title II of the ADA prohibits discriminationagainst qualified individuals with disabilities in all programs, activities, and services of public entities.And Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation. Many courts interpret public accommodations to include the internet. If an organization fails to make its product or services accessible, it may become the subject of legal action, with plaintiffs citing violation of the ADA.

As an example, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) responded to a complaint by the National Association of the Deaf alleging that theUniversity of Berkeley was in violation of Title II of the ADA. The DOJ proceeded to investigate the university’s online course material, and subsequently instructed the University of Berkeley, in no uncertain terms, to remove barriers from videos and other website components such as inaccessible PDF documents.

It’s time to eliminate barriers

In many ways, human rights legislation is catching up to advancing technology. Companies that move quickly to eliminate barriers from their digital properties will be in an advantageous position—ahead of the curve. Not only will they be in compliance with current and future accessibility laws and rulings, they’ll also benefit from serving a wider variety of people and their needs.

Let Level Access help with CVAA compliance

Level Access has in-depth experience helping organizations meet the accessibility requirements of the CVAA. Our solution offers full-featured software, backed by expert consultancy. For more information about how Level Access can help you understand and respond to the requirements of 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, or other global requirements,contact us today.


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