Closed Captioning and Video Description

One revolutionary technology that has improved access to video materials for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals is captioning. Captioning technology provides a transcript of spoken information at the bottom of a video. Captions can be used on a wide range of video materials, including television programming, videotapes, CDs, DVDs, film, movies, and streaming media.

Captioning can be either open or closed. Open captioning occurs when the captions are displayed for all viewers watching the video material. In contrast, closed captions are encoded, and are only revealed if specific decoding technology is present and activated by the end user. Since 1990, all new television sets have been equipped with closed captioning decoding capabilities. Television sets older than 1990 may require a special captioning decoder to view closed captions. Additionally, many streaming media players such as QuickTime and RealPlayer have captioning decoders built-in that can be used in a library. Federal guidelines currently require that 100% of all new broadcast television programming must be captioned by the year 2006.

Similar in many ways to captioning, video description is a technology for those who are blind or visually impaired that provides an audio description of visual elements during the natural conversation pauses in videos. Like captioning, video description can be used on a wide range of video materials including television programming, videotapes, CDs, DVDs, film, movies, and streaming media. Generally, television video description is broadcast over the SAP channel of the television. For CDs, DVDs, and streaming media, the audio description elements may be activated as a separate sound track. There is currently no federal mandate requiring that any broadcast television be video described. Moreover, there is no federal mandate requiring that any video materials distributed via software or broadcast on the Internet be captioned or video described.

Not all video materials have captions or video description available - in order for the captions or video description to be present, the maker or distributor of the video material must submit the program for translation, and encode the video with the captions or the video description. Consequently, it is important for librarians to consider whether the video library materials they purchase and loan are available in captioned and/or video described format. Librarians should make every effort to only purchase those materials that are already captioned and/or video described. Additionally, librarians should be familiar with activating captions and video description on the equipment in the library in order to better assist patrons.

Further information:

Media Access Group at WGBH

National Captioning Institute


Federal Communications Commission:
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