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Like subtitles, captions display spoken dialogue as printed words on a television screen or monitor. Captions, unlike subtitles, are carefully placed to identify speakers, sound effects, music and laughter to allow full participation for audiences who are deaf or hard of hearing in a media presentation. Captions can be open or closed: open captions display the transcript on-screen as part of the video, whereas closed captions are hidden as data within the video signal requiring that they be decoded to be displayed on-screen and are user-selectable or are displayed on a separate screen. To produce captions, caption writers use software to transcribe the script of an entire presentation synchronizing the printed word with the audio track, then encode the captions into the program’s video. Live programs and events use realtime captioning techniques where a stenographer or automated electronic newsroom system produces captions which are broadcast simultaneously with the live program. ESPN recently posted a blog entry and video about the techniques used by their Program Compliance Team which provides realtime captioning for their live programming. Other realtime techniques include Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) in which speech is transcribed to text in real time and displayed on a computer screen, LED board, LCD projection screen or over the Internet without including any video images in the same feed. While primarily created to provide access to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, captioning also holds secondary benefits for people learning a foreign language, learning to read, viewing a presentation in noisy environments, and those whose dominant method of understanding information is visual processing.

U.S. Laws Requiring Captioning

Robust captioning legislation has grown out of grassroots advocacy efforts on the part of the deaf and hard of hearing communities in response to scarce availability of captioned content. The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 which went into effect on July 1, 1993 requires:

  • All analog television receivers with screens measuring 13 inches diagonally or larger to be capable of displaying closed captions
  • Computers with monitors measuring at least 13 inches diagonally to be capable of displaying closed captions
  • Digital televisions with 7.8-inch vertical screens equivalent to 13-inch analog diagonal screens to be capable of displaying closed captions
  • Digital set top boxes made or imported into the United States to be capable of displaying closed captions
  • The Act also empowers the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that future video technologies will be capable of displaying closed captions

Similar provisions are also contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended.

Section 713 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 authorized the Federal Communications Commission to issue rules requiring captioning on video programming. The FCC mandated 100 percent of English and Spanish programming produced after January 1, 1998 and 75 percent of English and Spanish programming on each channel during each calendar quarter produced prior to January 1, 1998 to be provided with captioning. The rules also require distributors to pass through closed caption data for programming that is already captioned. The FCC also issued regulations requiring local emergency information to be made accessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing by using a method of closed captioning or visual presentation.

Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, amended in 1998, lays out provisions focused on the rights, advocacy and protections for individuals with disabilities. Sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require federal agencies and federally-funded programs and activities to engage in practices of nondiscrimination by providing reasonable accommodations, program accessibility, and effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities. Section 508 establishes requirements for electronic and information technology developed, procured, used or maintained by the federal government. The technical standards for implementation of Section 508 established by the U.S. Access Board specify requirements for captioned content and closed caption decoder circuitry. Specifically:

  • Section 1194.22 (B) requires captioning or other equivalent alternatives to the audio portion of web-based multimedia which are synchronized with the presentation
  • Section 1194.24 (A) implements closed caption decoder circuitry requirements similar to those established in the Television Decoder Circuitry Act
  • Section 1194.24 (C) requires open or closed captioning of speech or other audio information that is part of multimedia productions that support the agency’s mission

The 21st Century Communications and Video accessibility Act of 2010 amends the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to expand the authority of the FCC to promulgate rules to ensure the accessibility of new and emerging technology to individuals with disabilities. Title II of the act focuses on video programming and broadly directs the FCC to conduct inquiries and enforce regulations for making video programming, services and equipment accessible to disabled users, specifically:

  • Section 201 directs the FCC to establish the Video Programming and Emergency Access Advisory Committees
    • The Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee (VPAAC) held its first meeting on January 13, 2011; on July 13, 2011, the VPAAC issued their first report which pertains to closed captioning of video programming delivered using Internet Protocol
    • The Emergency Access Advisory Committee (EAAC) held its first meeting in February 2011 to focus on matters of next generation 911 access for persons with disabilities and released its report and recommendations on January 26, 2012
  • Section 202 requires the FCC to expand its regulations for closed captioning to include video programming over the Internet
    • On January 13, 2012, the FCC adopted regulations requiring closed captioning of Internet Protocol-delivered video programming which covers requirements governing owners, providers and distributors of Internet-delivered video programming and the devices used to access it
  • Section 203 expands the Television and Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 to require that closed captions, video descriptions and accessible emergency information be passed between connected devices
  • Section 204 obligates the FCC to require that all control devices provide top-level access to caption or video description information to activate and deactivate this functionality in an accessible manner

Do Any of These Laws Apply to Me?

In short, these laws apply to you if you:

  • Manufacture equipment capable of displaying or passing through video programming that is available on broadcast, satellite or cable TV and is made or sold in the United States
  • Manufacture equipment or software that can display video programming that is accessed over the Internet and is made or sold in the United States
  • Produce, broadcast, or distribute video programming on television or the Internet that airs or can be accessed in the United States
  • Are a federal agency
  • Are a state or local government agency or institution which receives funding from the federal government
  • Are an educational institution
  • If you produce multimedia content for a federal agency, educational institution, state or local government or other entity which receives federal funding

How SSB can Help with Captioning Requirements

Accessibility Management Platform

SSB’s Accessibility Management Platform (AMP) is a web-based platform for the implementation and management of accessibility across an enterprise. AMP provides the operating system for accessibility by providing your team with the infrastructure to implement:

  • Auditing – Software to complete formal and informal accessibility audits
  • Training – Online access to training courses and curricula
  • Standards Management – Manage compliance across time and technology platforms

Implementation Support

SSB’s Implementation Support provides the support services needed to rapidly implement accessibility enhancements.

  • Testing – Formal and informal testing of systems for accessibility
  • Access Advisor– Responses to technical questions related to standards, best practices, Assistive Technology usage and other accessibility issues
  • Training and Standards Customization – Ongoing maintenance and definition of optimal compliance across training and best practice reference manuals
  • Production Monitoring – Accessibility monitoring for key client assets

Talk to an expert

By far the most valuable thing you can do is take ten minutes and talk to me or one of SSB’s accessibility experts about the specifics of your accessibility initiative. Right now you are probably searching the Internet, reading blog postings and reviewing the soup of publicly available accessibility standards, pieces of legislation and acts of litigation and trying to make sense of it all. If you are interested in getting back to your actual job, the easiest and fastest way to make that happen is for you to talk to someone who has worked with other organizations in your space to implement captioning compliance requirements.

At SSB we provide these consultations free of charge with an accessibility expert specific to your industry. The goal is to help you understand what resources we have available so you can learn more about accessibility and determine an approach that is right for you.

To setup some time to talk with an expert and discuss your specific accessibility needs you can call us at (800) 889-9659 or send us an e-mail.