3 Critical WCAG 2.1 Video Best Practices and How to Apply Them

By UsableNet on Oct 21, 2020
Topics: Web Accessibility


More than ever, companies are using video content to convey brand messages and build mindshare with customers. The proliferation of social media marketing channels such as Instagram and TikTok has made video essential to a brand’s success. However, much of this new video content is inaccessible to users with disabilities.

That accessibility is becoming increasingly important for the entire population.

A 2019 study by Verizon Media and ad buyer Publicis Media surveyed US consumers and found that 92% view videos with the sound off on mobile and 80% of consumers are more likely to watch an entire video when captions are available. Based on these findings, the report recommends that advertisers caption their advertisements. The study also found that captions improve greater brand recall.  

Further, over the last few months, the UsableNet digital accessibility lawsuit research team has seen an upward trend in plaintiffs claiming that videos without captions are a primary accessibility barrier. This is becoming more frequently cited not just in lawsuits, but in demand letters, and testing reports from plaintiffs.

Making sure your video content is accessible to users with disabilities is crucial to building and maintaining your brand reputation. Besides avoiding the potential legal implications, creating and providing inclusive video content that complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) will help broaden your audience.  There are 48 million Americans with hearing loss, which is about 20% of the US population, and 360 million deaf or hard of hearing individuals around the world. So captions help make your content more accessible to them.

Legal Obligations

Three major federal accessibility laws in the U.S. impact video accessibility. First, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a broad civil rights law, prevents the government, private employers, and public accommodations from discriminating against people based on disability. The ADA has been interpreted to cover video accessibility online and in the workplace, and has been featured in prominent accessibility suits against Netflix and MIT.

→ Want to learn more about UX accessibility best practices? Download our primer.

The 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) has captioning requirements for online video that has previously appeared on television. It requires that any online video that has aired on TV with captions must also be captioned when it goes online. Additionally, the CVAA aims to phase in audio description requirements for broadcasts.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 contains two sections—504 and 508—that impact video accessibility. Section 504 contains broad anti-discrimination guidelines that require equal access for individuals with disabilities, and apply to federal and federally funded programs. Section 508 requires federal communications and information technology to be accessible. The recent Section 508 refresh references the WCAG, which specifically requires captioning and audio description.

WCAG 2.1 Video Requirements

The WCAG details international standards and best practices for web accessibility. WCAG 2.1, which is the most current standard, contains clear requirements for video accessibility that are frequently referenced in legal cases.

WCAG 2.1 outlines most video-specific requirements in Section 1.2, centering around providing alternatives for time-based media such as audio and videos. The following specific guidelines apply to video content:

  • 1.2.1: For prerecorded video-only content, an audio track is provided that presents equivalent information.
  • 1.2.2: Captions are provided for all prerecorded audio content within videos.
  • 1.2.3: Audio descriptions of prerecorded video content are provided.
  • 1.2.4: Captions are provided for all live audio content in videos.
  • 1.2.5: Audio description is provided for all prerecorded video content.
  • 1.2.6: Sign language interpretation is provided for all prerecorded audio content.
  • 1.2.7: Where pauses in foreground audio are insufficient to allow audio descriptions to convey the sense of the video, extended audio description is provided for all prerecorded video content.*
  • 1.2.8: An alternative for time-based media is provided for all prerecorded synchronized media and for all prerecorded video-only media.*

*Guidelines 1.2.7 and 1.2.8 are both AAA level and generally not mandated by law.

3 Best Practices to Put into Action

These video accessibility best practices will help you achieve and maintain WCAG 2.1 compliance:

1. Provide transcripts and/or captions for any audio or video content you host online, including webinars, YouTube videos, social media videos, and so on. Many different types of users will benefit from the ability to follow along with captions or a transcript.

2. Describe your videos with audio descriptions wherever possible. Many blind and low-vision users depend on described audio to get the same experience from a video as a sighted viewer. The extra effort also can benefit users with developmental disabilities.

3. Make sure the media player you use to display videos is accessible for screen readers and other assistive technology. Even though you don’t make the player, you are responsible for the content and will be held liable if it is inaccessible. Include a clause in any vendor contracts that states the product you purchase is fully accessible.

As more content goes digital and video increases its role in our lives, video accessibility must be addressed holistically. With due diligence and careful consideration, dynamic, accessible video content is within reach and should be a goal for every organization. 

To learn more about digital accessibility and the role that video plays in it all, check out our Web and App Accessibility guide.

Free Guide: Web and App Accessibility: Your Roadmap to Digital Inclusion Download Now



Founded in 2000, UsableNet created some of the first tools and platforms to make websites accessible and usable for all people. Starting out, we worked with government agencies as well as universities and corporations. Today, accessibility has become important to almost all companies. We provide accessibility solutions to Fortune 1000 companies, small and medium enterprises, government, and education organizations across industries including retail, travel, hospitality, food services, automotive, financial services, and healthcare.

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