The heart of socially engaged media making is ensuring an informed citizenry, and this includes making media accessible to the widest range of audiences. Documentary filmmakers usually think of this as a question about distribution, but they may be overlooking something essential: closed captioning. With recent compliance agreements to provide closed captioning from players such as YouTube, Netflix and Amazon, filmmakers should take note of regulations soon than later in post-production.
NAD vs. Netflix: How a new precedent was set
In 2010, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) brought a lawsuit before Netflix for failing to provide close captioning on the “Watch Instantly” TV and movie options; thus discriminating against the near 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States. NAD had the backing of the Americans with Disability Act, which Netflix argued didn’t apply to internet-based companies. Netflix also tried to make the case that their media was meant to be enjoyed at home, not in the public--an argument the judge threw out as irrational on the basis of the illogic of limiting use to a physical location. But then there was also the question of internet-based companies, a segment of businesses the Americans with Disability Act did not address.
Fast- forward a year and Netflix finally agreed to move full steam ahead and jump their close captioned from 30% to about 80% by the end of 2011. Another year later and the lawsuit from NAD against Netflix reached an agreement in 2012. It stated that all shows the company streams will be closed-captioned within two years. **Important to note is that the technology of output devices varies and older devises did not guarantee closed captions could be available, something Netflix argues (correctly) they can’t control. (This issue was addressed by Congress for all future output devises in 2010.) This case set a precedent that all internet-based companies would be included in the Americans with Disability Act, affecting the likes of Hulu, iTunes, and so on.
Review of the ADA
Americans with Disability Act (ADA) came about in the 1990’s, before online content could be addressed under the umbrella of media. On October 8, 2010, the President Obama signed the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (see image to right). The gist of the Act is to go one step beyond ADA by requiring all devices moving forward be capable of captioning video and all internet video, including video and TV shows, be captioned for those deaf or hard of hearing. While vague adjustments to the new Act were made by lawmakers on behalf of media companies (such as only needing to make changes which are ‘achievable’ and leaving the term “advanced communications” open-ended and thereby not including Skype, Google, AOL, etc), the overall benefits for the hearing impaired were considerable. Until this Act, they had not been able to regularly enjoy film since the 1920s when cinema was silent.
Innovation can help filmmakers ensure their media isn’t discriminating.
There are different types of captions; open, which is visible by the entire audience; closed, which is displayed only when an individual selects it; and now most recently, Rear Window, which is captioning generated by technology and independent of the film or copies of the film. This technology is part of a theater’s digital sound system. A clear adjustable panel is mounted near the deaf person’s seat in the theater. This panel reflects the images of the captions from a LED display in the rear of the theater and allows disabled individuals to enjoy the movie in the same theater as other moviegoers. Thus ensuring that the experience is equal but not separate.
Innovation is setting new standards through software, analog televisions, even SONY glasses which project captions 10 feet in front of the viewer. The possibilities are increasing for everyone to be able to enjoy films, but not without the cooperation of filmmakers in providing captions and descriptions.
In short, if you are an independent filmmaker, barely scrapping enough together to finish your film, consider the importance of closed captions. With planning, this need not be a daunting task. By adding descriptive information and/or descriptive audio (for the visually imparied), distribution outlets with the ability to use the captions will--and with tools such as MovieCaptioner, this process is completely do-able and will allow your film to be distributed across a wide platform while (more importantly) hearing or sight-impaired individuals will be able to appreciate your art. Closed captioning services are also available through companies as well as encoding.com’s universal closed captioning system, which states their goal as to seamlessly integrate captioning features into media makers workflow. Lastly, it is important to review the Video Accessibility Act to ensure your media is accessible and in compliance.