The internet has an amazing capability to break down barriers for those with disabilities. The internet, as a tool, provides us with many ways to break down those barriers. Though often, we need to be made aware of content strategies that can widen our reach to diverse groups.
When discussing disabilities, we often only think about permanent disabilities that don't improve over time. Other types of disabilities include temporary and situational. Temporary disabilities occur due to illness or injury but will improve. Most of us, at some point, have experienced a situational hearing disability. For example, many people would not understand the audio on video media when they’re in a noisy location.
Audio and video media accessibility
In the United States, about 11.5 million people are hard of hearing or deaf. For those with a hearing disability, the lack of content alternatives creates a barrier to accessing information, entertainment, and product features. Providing alternatives to what is said in audio-only (ex., Podcasts) or video (ex., Streaming tv) media is an excellent start to breaking down that barrier.
Additionally, people benefit from knowing what other sounds are in audio-only or video media. Think about a video with a baby crying, a dog barking, or sirens in the background. People in the video may respond to the noise, though the video may not provide a non-audible alternative indicating there was a noise. A non-audible alternative to noise offers a similar meaningful understanding to those with a hearing disability as audible noise provides to those who can hear.
Without alternative content methods, there could be misunderstandings during work meetings, or barriers to taking a class or getting better grades in school. As said in the accessibility industry, disability and exclusion only exist because of the barriers we design.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are an international standard for web content that outline ways to be more inclusive to those with a disability. WCAG guides how we, as content authors, can use strategies and design patterns to make audio-only and video media more inclusive.
It's essential to plan the methods of alternative content methods as part of your regular content strategy. When planning, ask yourself:
- Will the content be pre-recorded, live, or live and recorded?
- Will the content be audio-only or video with audio?
- Will there be a script available?
- Will the media need a transcript or captions?
- Will live media need a real-time captioner or signer?
- Does the media player have accessible features?
WCAG requires pre-recorded audio-only media to have transcripts, though it is a good idea to also include transcripts for video media. Transcripts provide a text alternative to primary audio content, background, and meaningful sounds. Transcripts can be a separate file from the media but are the most useful when used alongside the media.
WCAG also requires captions for live and pre-recorded videos with audio. Captions are a text alternative usually displayed at the bottom of the video, often using a dark overlay background with white text. It's important to plan your video, so the captions don't cover significant parts of the video. The speaker should speak slowly and pause when appropriate to give people time to read the captions along with the video's action. Live video can use automatic machine learning captioning, though people who do real-time captioning are rapid and more accurate. If the live video is being recorded for viewing later, the captions will need some editing to improve the accuracy. For pre-recorded videos, add captions when editing the recording.
Providing sign language for pre-recorded videos is encouraged by the WCAG and makes the content much more inclusive. Sign language varies in different cultures and countries; you will want to ensure you are using the correct version. Place the signer as an overlay in the lower right corner of the video with good lighting. Ensure the signing area is fully visible, large enough, and not obscured.
How to make your content accessible
The most important reason to create accessible content is that people with hearing disabilities become more independent and active members of our communities. There are several ways you can improve your audio-only and video media for those with hearing disabilities, including:
- Reducing background noises to 20 decibels lower than the primary audio to distinguish the primary audio content from other noises.
- Providing clear instructions or descriptions. Instead of "Mix everything together," say, "Mix the eggs, sugar, and cream in a bowl."
- Offering an interactive transcript that follows the audio by highlighting the transcript text while the user watches a video.
- Always including captions on video content.
- Making the user aware when a video does not have meaningful audio.
- For example, include a caption saying, "The only audio for this video is background music." Let the user know what type of music is playing to help them understand the atmosphere the music is creating.
Interestingly, breaking barriers with inclusive strategies creates more usable designs for everyone. For example, transcripts and captions help us all when we need to turn the sound down or are in noisy places. Audio-only and video media are growing on the internet for education, entertainment, and commerce. As a tool, the internet can reach more people, and accessible content extends that reach even further.
Lastly, you want to ensure your content delivery technology is accessible. Media players should provide captions that allow users to turn on or off the captions, change captions' size and color, and control the media's speed.