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April 2012

Virtually Accessible to All

By Barbara Palmer, Senior Editor

Making video content accessible to attendees with hearing and vision loss is more than a good thing to do. It’s a smart thing to do.

For experienced planners, thinking about accessibility is second nature when it comes to live meetings. In-person events must make it possible for attendees with vision and hearing impairments to access presentations.

But those same audiences are often excluded from accessing online video content, because there is no legal requirement to accommodate their needs — unless the content is created by the federal government or government contractors. Legislation in place since 1998 (an amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) requires that electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.

Sonic Foundry — which offers an event-webcasting platform called Mediasite — is experienced in accommodating hearing- and vision-impaired online participants, for government as well as university and conference clients who require webcast content accessibility, said Erica St. Angel, Sonic Foundry’s vice president of marketing.

For clients who require webcast content accessibility for people who are hearing-impaired, Mediasite supports live and/or on-demand closed captioning, as well as a sign-language-interpreter option. Mediasite provides alternate slide text, which can be read by screen readers that provide text-to-speech output or Braille displays.

Even many of Sonic Foundry’s clients who aren't required to make content accessible consider it “a nice-to-have,” St. Angel said. “They recognize that it is the right thing to do, and are struggling to figure out how to do it.”

And while it may not be a mandate today, it’s uncertain whether more categories of content producers will be required to make video accessible. Congress passed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 to ensure that digital content, devices, and emerging technologies are accessible to disabled users. The Federal Communications Commission is currently holding hearings to determine how broadly the law will be applied to organizations that produce digital content.

There are good reasons, in addition to compliance and ethics, to think now about making video content available to users in text form, St. Angel said. Because the Internet is text-based, most video content is invisible to search engines, such as Google. Providing transcripts and closed captioning boosts SEO (search engine optimization). Converting video content to text gives you the ability to attract viewers you otherwise wouldn't reach, St. Angel said, and to repurpose the content for new audiences.

If you simply post video on the Web, “ you've eliminated an enormous amount of content” from search engines, said Jeremy Barron, president and co-founder of 3PlayMedia, which provides transcription and captioning services. When transcripts are synchronized and embedded into videos, all users can search the content by keywords—not just in an individual video, but throughout an organization’s entire video archive. “A user interested in a particular topic, ”Barron said, “can search through hundreds of hours of video in a very short time.”

He added: “The online video world is evolving very quickly, and people are still figuring it out. There are clear benefits for closed captioning for the hearing impaired. … You can expand that to a broader audience by using interactive tools that leverage transcripts.” 

To see how Sonic Foundry uses closed captioning with online content, check out the presentation How to Create Slides That Don’t Suck (and Help Others Do the Same).” 

Take Away: Ask Uncle Sam

The accessibility of electronic information for federal employees has been mandated for nearly 15 years — meaning federal agencies can offer expertise in making digital presentations available to all users.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for example, offers best practices for accessible online meetings and webinars. A sample tip: Send documents, including PowerPoint slides, in plain text in advance of an online event, so that participants with low vision have the option of preparing their own Braille versions beforehand. It’s a better alternative than asking users to listen to both the presenter and a text-to-speech reader at the same time. 

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