Government leaders in some cities are implementing meaningful changes to boost their inclusivity efforts. However, a recent survey found that many locations in California are still excluding people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. The disappointing results indicated that just one of 31 reviewed cities in California’s Orange County is using real-time captions provided by a human transcriber when broadcasting their public meetings.
Failing to offer this service often stems in part from an inadequate understanding of the public’s needs. Additionally, many seem unaware that automatic captions are inaccurate and do not meet the needs of the people who rely on them. In fact, lacking accessibility services potentially violates accessibility laws, even if the people in charge unintentionally excluded people with disabilities.
Leaders at Automatic Sync Technologies (AST) recognized the accessibility awareness gap and are taking steps to further educate the industry. Fortunately, professional captioning solutions are helping usher in more inclusive societal practices and greater accessibility.
The Human Costs of Inaccessibility
When local governments don’t accommodate people who are Deaf and hard of hearing, they exclude those citizens’ voices. Those impacted include many older people who statistically face a high risk of hearing loss. These individuals have fewer chances to participate in or even know what is happening in their communities.
Additionally, in some instances, cities need to spread information quickly because of an emergency. In those cases, failing to offer accurate captions can be dangerous. Not only will people who are Deaf be at risk, but so might older individuals, those who speak English as a second language, and people with auditory processing disorders.
Given the importance of accommodations like captions, the excuses city officials provide for lacking them fall flat.
Learning From Orange County Cities’ ‘Excuses’
When the Voice of OC interviewed officials and advocates about the lack of accessibility in local cities, they uncovered several excuses. However, analyzing each reason cited by these leaders exposes flaws in their logic.
The Law Doesn’t Require Accommodations
One common excuse cities gave for failing to provide captions was that they don’t have to because the law doesn’t specifically apply to them. Even when the laws may be somewhat unclear, current trends indicate that the public and the court system might be losing patience regarding inaccessibility. Additionally, accessibility efforts aren’t just about avoiding litigation in today’s world, but involve measures to improve inclusivity. Creating hurdles for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing is unacceptable, and can tarnish a brand’s reputation.
Too Few Requests to Warrant the Cost
Another excuse is that the cities don’t receive enough requests to warrant providing accommodations. This reasoning is also flawed.
In practice, many cities only announce their meetings a few days in advance and require as many days’ notice for requesting accommodations. Additionally, requiring such formal requests days in advance fails to put people who require them on equal footing with others who don’t need those services. Proactive accommodations are the only way to create an equitable experience.
Accommodations are Too Costly
The budgetary concerns are an inadequate excuse as well, given that experts claim funds exist for these services and that the cities do have the money. Some officials also point out that citizens will be more receptive to spending their tax dollars on inclusivity efforts than they will be on legal fees for failing to accommodate people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, even where officials provide certain accommodations, those efforts might not be enough.
Offering Sign Language Doesn’t Cancel the Need for Captions
Many city leaders claim they are accommodating people who are Deaf or hard of hearing by offering a sign language interpreter upon request. There are several flaws with this approach.
Many People Don’t Know ASL
First, the assumption that every person who is Deaf or hard of hearing knows American Sign Language (ASL) is flawed. In fact, according to Accessibility.com, only 1% of 48 million people in the US with hearing loss use ASL. As a result, many people require accommodations like captioning, even if the broadcasts include a sign language interpreter.
Creating Hurdles for People with Disabilities
Another issue is that anyone who wants a sign language interpreter must provide notice and make a formal request days in advance. Putting the burden of asking for an interpreter on citizens does not foster an equitable experience. Individuals might not learn about the meeting in time to make the request, and unlike their peers who don’t require accommodations, they cannot choose to attend or listen in at the last minute. The best solution is to offer common services proactively rather than only in response to a specific request.
Positioning of the Interpreter
Additionally, broadcasts with a sign language interpreter often don’t position that interpreter well. As a result, there may be times when the people who do use sign language cannot see the interpreter.
With all of that said, offering a sign language interpreter is a step in the right direction and a good way to improve inclusivity. However, using both captions and a sign language interpreter will better serve many audiences, but only if the captions are reasonably accurate.
Why Free Captioning Services Fall Short
Platforms like YouTube now offer their own free captioning tools. When government meetings and other events shifted to remote settings during the pandemic, many agencies opted to try these services. Unfortunately, technology alone is not yet capable of providing accurate captions for video and audio content.
Free automatic speech recognition (ASR) tools are performing at better rates than before, but they still make mistakes frequently. Their accuracy is not strong enough for individuals with disabilities, among others, who rely on them to understand the content. Some California city representatives admit that identifying names and locations proves particularly difficult for ASR, leading to highly confusing captions. Clearly, error-riddled captions can’t provide people who are Deaf or hard of hearing with an equitable experience.
Another issue some users reported is that the automatic live captions don’t always capture everything and might not “kick in” when they should. Gaps in service leave those using captions without any access.
Still, some California city officials stated that they rely on these tools, even despite the poor quality. The National Deaf Center states in no uncertain terms that ASR doesn’t offer an adequate captioning solution. Instead, government agencies should be using a professional captioning solution like AST, which employs human transcribers. In fact, using a low-quality captioning service can even lead to legal complications.
Potential Legal Violations of Failing to Offer Captions
There are several laws that government agencies need to consider when offering accessibility services, like captioning. Additionally, while even private companies must meet certain accessibility requirements, the law holds government bodies to a stricter standard.
Here are a few accessibility laws agencies should be considering.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Rehabilitation Act created some of the first legally mandated accessibility requirements in the US. Section 508 is a later addition to the legislation and applies to the federal government. The law is especially important because it mandates online accessibility. Specifically, it directs government agencies to adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Although Section 508 isn’t directly applicable for state or municipal governments, the same standards may apply because of other laws.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a landmark federal law that creates accessibility standards for state and local governments, employers and businesses. The legislation applies in “places of public accommodation.” Although it doesn’t directly address online accessibility, it will apply to in-person government meetings. Additionally, courts continue to find ways to make the terms of the ADA apply in cases of web accessibility.
In California specifically, State Government Code 7405 dictates that state government agencies must comply with the standards outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Many other states have similar online accessibility laws.
In some instances, governments can face lawsuits for failing to adhere to relevant online accessibility regulations. Such instances increased in recent years, potentially related to the pandemic.
How Legal Implications Change When Meetings Move Online
As mentioned, the most comprehensive accessibility law in the US, the ADA, doesn’t directly address online accommodations. The law barely predates the internet, so the timing has more to do with the exclusion of online access than does intent.
In today’s world, especially since the start of the pandemic, the need for online accessibility has become as important, if not more so, than access in person. When government meetings, schools and workplaces all shifted from inside a building to inside a Zoom “room,” the inadequate accessibility became more glaringly obvious and frustrating.
In part because of these factors, the number of lawsuits related to online accessibility has exploded in recent years. While the law might not be as clear as accessibility advocates would like, it’s proving close enough to create consequences for many organizations that neglect people with disabilities.
Additionally, the cost of an accessibility lawsuit extends to bad press and a tarnished reputation. Even organizations that manage to evade legal liability have to argue why they don’t need to offer accessibility solutions, which isn’t a favorable position in today’s society.
Government Accessibility Goes Beyond Captions
The failure of local governments to offer captions in so many California cities is surprising. Today, captioning is a fairly universal accessibility accommodation. It’s rare to find TV shows, streaming networks, institutions like universities or other environments that don’t offer captioning. However, there are additional ways to use technology to improve accessibility.
Audio description: With audio description, people who are blind or have low vision can gain a better understanding of what’s transpiring in government videos. AST’s audio description includes a voiceover that describes everything appearing or happening on screen. The visual elements of video help tell stories and offer context, which people with vision disabilities need to consume videos effectively.
Transcription: The World Wide Web Consortium recommends using transcription as another accommodation that can help people who are Deaf and hard of hearing, as well as those with auditory processing disorders. Searchable transcripts that sync with captions for video content are even more user-friendly.
With so much available accessibility technology, city officials in Orange County and across the US should stop looking for excuses, and start finding solutions.
Government agencies, including The Library of Congress and NASA, look to AST as an essential partner in promoting their accessibility and inclusion efforts. Contact us to learn more about how our GSA-schedule captioning, transcription and audio description services can help you better serve the needs of your community.