The Rehabilitation Act (1973) and the American with Disabilities Act (1990) have been the gatekeepers of inclusion and accessibility for decades now. You must be thinking – if these federal laws were passed before the web and streaming media became mainstream, can they still be relevant in ensuring accessibility in such spaces?
Fortunately, laws tend to evolve with the changing demands of society. For example, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (an amendment) rules that all information and communication technology used, procured, and disseminated by the federal government and its agencies (including federal-funded educational institutions) should follow accessibility guidelines, that is, this information should not exclude individuals with disabilities (1 in 5 people in the US have some form of disability). Moreover, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seeks to prevent discrimination by making “places of public accommodation” accessible to people with disabilities. A law complementary to the ADA is CVAA, which was passed on October 2010 and mandated the updation of anti-discriminatory guidelines to include compliance regulations for all aspects of modern technology
Let’s look at how major accessibility lawsuits are changing the landscape for inclusivity on the web.
1. The National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix
According to CNBC’s All-American Economic Survey, 51% of American media streamers subscribe to Netflix, which pushes it in the domain of “a place of public accommodation.” In 2010, the National Association of the Deaf sued the streaming giant for failing to caption its “Watch Instantly” movies and TV shows. They alleged that Netflix was in violation of the Title III of the ADA, pointing to the 36 million Americans who are deaf or some hearing disability. Previously, they had petitioned through blogs and letters to persuade Netflix to caption these content.
Netflix tried to leverage the fact the CVAA had not passed its deadline, making it non-obligatory for Netflix to include closed captions for their “Watch Instantly” content. However, the presiding judge of the case made a landmark ruling, and Netflix settled with the following legally binding decree: that they would caption 80% of their content by 200 and 100% of their content by 2014.
2. Amazon Video
While Netflix was “unwilling” to comply to the NAD’s request before the lawsuit, Amazon Video was a little more agreeable in making entertainment on their platform accessible (and without a lawsuit in this case). As a result, they captioned all content available through Prime Video in 2015 and agreed to caption 100% of the uncaptioned 1,90,000 titles on their platform by the end of 2016.
NAD attorney Namita Gupta stated that the Amazon settlement would hopefully convince potential media streamers to close caption their content to boost accessibility. Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the NAD, also commented that “The NAD is thus thrilled by Amazon’s decision to make its online entertainment experience more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing customers who also look to Amazon to fulfill their needs for comprehensive goods and services.”
3. The American Council of the Blind et al. v. Hulu
American Council of the Blind, Bay State Council of the Blind, and a blind Massachusetts couple filed a joint lawsuit against Hulu, another leading video streaming platform with 12 million subscribers because its content lacked audio descriptions (a separate audio track that provides detailed narration) for its low vision and blind subscribers. Moreover, their web content wasn’t screen reader accessible – another violation of ADA Title III.
Kim Charlson, president of the American Council of the Blind stated “Movies and television are pillars of American culture. As delivery of such media transitions to video streaming services, it is critical that these platforms be accessible in order to ensure the inclusion of blind and visually impaired individuals in contemporary society.”
Hulu agreeing to add audio tracks for the video content on their platform is another push toward inclusivity on the web.
4. The National Association of the Deaf v. Harvard and MIT
Both Harvard and MIT were early adopters of edX, a program that hosts university-level courses for a wide demographic of students. However, in February 2015, Harvard (and later MIT) was sued by the NAD for failing to add closed captions to their online video content, thus alienating students with full or partial hearing disabilities. Students found that many of the videos were using AI-generated captions with a high rate of inaccuracy, thus affecting comprehension of the course content.
Overall, this lawsuit raised questions how universities can delegate resources appropriately to create accessible content and made it clear that the NAD expected all universities to caption content to make learning equitable.
Key Takeaways from the Lawsuits
Accessibility on the internet has gained momentum in the past few years with the major accessibility lawsuits setting precedents for how the web space can be made more inclusive to individuals with disabilities. Here are some key takeaways to strengthen the bottom line of your web content.
- Make accessibility a proactive rather than a reactive measure.
- While accessibility laws regarding web content and media are slightly foggy, expect them to become more detailed and binding in future
- Make accessibility a priority to make inclusivity a priority
- Accessibility is great for business: you’ll be tapping into a wide user base with good spending power. (The total after-tax income of working-age adults with disabilities is about $490 billion!)
There are many perks of being an early adopter of accessibility guidelines for the web. First, in a rapidly digitizing world, investing in accessibility is clearly the right thing to do. Moreover, you stand a chance to rise above your competition and become a market leader in your industry, whether you’re an e-learning company, a vlogger, or own an e-commerce store. Lastly, your accessibility efforts of including closed captions and transcripts will also boost your digital marketing endeavors.