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Closed Captions: Increasing Accessibility of Educational Video

Our Responsibility

NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) values inclusion in all of its academic, research, and extension programs. Therefore, making digital and web-based educational materials accessible to persons with disabilities is integral to our workflow, and it’s in line with New Mexico State University’s commitment to foster “learning, inquiry, diversity and inclusion, social mobility and service to the larger community.” We also have a responsibility to follow federal laws under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended, which now apply to universities receiving federal funding.

Developers in the Innovative Media Research and Extension (IMRE) department work extensively to make digital materials compliant: we’ve learned some best practices to help extension educators navigate the requirements. The web group in IMRE is responsible for ensuring all ACES websites are compliant with federal regulations and are compatible with assistive technologies such as screen readers. For information on this type of compliance, see “Guidelines for Creating Accessible Documents for Websites”. The IMRE video unit ensures all public videos on the ACES YouTube channel have closed captioning.

Closed Captioning vs. Subtitles

Two black C letters with a white rectangle  around them representing the Closed Captioning symbol.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons and WGBH

Closed captions (CC) are subtitles that are unseen by most viewers but can be activated on their television sets or online video players with one click. The purpose of closed captioning is to make the audio portion of videos, television programs, and films accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired. The captions must include descriptions of music and sound effects in addition to the actual dialog. All sounds that are pertinent to the program must be described in the captions. For this reason, closed captioning is an accurate way to convey all the messages visual programs have to offer. Standard subtitles are made for those who hear the audio, including sound effects and music, but need to read the dialogue in their own language. Captions and subtitles may be “open” (always visible on screen) or “closed” (not visible unless activated.)

To Caption or Not to Caption

By law, we must make our educational materials accessible to individuals with disabilities when we receive a formal request to do so. However, we have a duty to be proactive under ADA Title II and provide services before they are requested. The law does allow some flexibility in how we choose to provide accommodations.

Screenshot of the ACES YouTube home page

We closed caption all our public-facing videos located on ACES YouTube. Those videos that have restricted viewing do not need to be captioned at this time. YouTube has three privacy settings that affect who can see a particular video: “private,” “unlisted,” and “public.” Private videos can only be seen by the owners of the channel. Unlisted videos can be embedded into a webpage and can be shared by a video link. These videos usually have very specific, smaller audiences. Public videos can be embedded on webpages and found by anyone searching the web. Because they are available for everyone to watch, we closed caption these videos.

Image of the Video Upload Request form from YouTube

While individual units at NMSU can create their own YouTube channel for their videos, we encourage everyone who produces videos in the College of ACES to post their videos on the ACES YouTube channel, which makes them available to our 266,000 subscribers and the general public. Producers can fill out this YouTube Request Form, and we will caption all videos under 15 minutes at no cost to you. We can also manage the process with longer videos, which will be captioned by an outside company at approximately $1.25/minute of video, billable to your account. If your department has its own YouTube channel, we encourage you to be proactive and ensure that all your public videos are closed captioned.

Auto-Captions and Quality

ACES Youtube Video

Zoom and most social media tools offer auto-captions. Auto-captions on recordings do not meet the quality requirements put forth by the FCC’s closed captioning rules, which require the “…quality of captions online to be equal or better than what was shown on television.” The rules cover accuracy, synchronicity, program completeness, and placement. While auto-captions may meet some of these requirements, they often fail miserably in accuracy. Captions must identify speakers, as well as music and other relevant sound (which are not described in auto-captions). The correct words and punctuation must be used. Auto-captions are only a starting point for compliant captions. Make sure to edit the auto-captions or replace them entirely. As educators, we strive to disseminate high-quality, accurate and correct information and should not accept low-quality, non-compliant captions on our materials.

Reasonable Accommodations

Captioning should be done whenever possible and in a timely manner. Unfortunately, there are instances where technical or financial restrictions make it hard to be compliant with captioning. Live events on social media are tricky to accurately caption as they are happening. Broadcast stations have been using live captioning services for years; however, captioning a live stream in real time on social media platforms usually requires hiring a specialist to type captions and the use of video streaming software. We will continue to investigate viable workflows for captioning online live streaming events. In the meantime, adding closed captioning to a recording after a live event is the best way we can remain compliant with the laws.

NMSU Spring Commencement 2021, Photo Credit: NMSU YouTube Channel

One alternative to live closed captioning is to film an American Sign Language expert translating live during an event. For example, NMSU’s graduation ceremony is made accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing communities by the addition of an ASL translator combined with open captions and closed captions. Zoom meetings are another great venue for ASL translators.

The final alternative is to provide transcripts upon request. The same companies that offer closed captioning also provide transcripts. Of course, you don’t get sound cues with transcripts, but at least the basic information will be provided. Because costs for these accommodations can add up, some program coordinators throughout the College of ACES have begun to include compliance expenses in their budget proposals.

Potential Consequences to Non-Compliance

Noncompliance exposes the university to lawsuits like the ones lost by Harvard, MIT and the University of California, Berkley because they failed to caption their public online videos.

The most important consequence is that deaf and hard of hearing individuals would not benefit as others do from our educational material. More importantly, a proactive approach helps us meet our educational goals. We have the potential to reach everyone on a spectrum of need. When we make our materials accessible to those with no hearing, we also help those with low hearing, those who need to watch videos in an environment with their sound turned off, or those who simply prefer to read along.

Our department appreciates the commitment of NMSU’s College of ACES to creating accessible materials, being equal opportunity educators, following the mission of the university, and serving the people of the state and beyond.

If you have questions about closed captioning your extension video, contact Tomilee Turner.

Resources for Additional Information

NMSU Office of Institutional Equity

University General Counsel


United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division

National Association for the Deaf

Bureau of Internet Accessibility

Written By: Tomilee Turner, Director, Video Unit.


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