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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 7, April 17, 2000

Captioning and Visual Description for Video:
Considerations for Campus Accessibility

by Bob Christiaansen
Professor of Occupational Therapy, Department of Kinesiology
Chair, Committee on Access and Accommodation in Instruction
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Access to the rich variety of educational opportunities available to students and staff on this and other university campuses is often taken for granted during daily educational rituals. For the most part, students or staff are able to arrive at a classroom or training facility, position themselves in that classroom, lecture hall, training facility, or laboratory, and prepare themselves to receive information. While this sounds quite typical to the majority of individuals on campus, for some, arriving at class or a training session is only the beginning of the challenge to obtain material being delivered. An increasing number of fully qualified students and employees with disabilities are exercising their rights to attend and work in state institutions of higher learning. For some, the challenge may be set into motion when the lecturer begins by providing instructions for the day with his or her back turned to the audience. The hearing impaired individual is suddenly cut off from the communication taking place and plunged into a momentary void. If the individual was attempting to follow along by reading the presenterís lips, a break in communication obviously occurred. If an aid were present to sign the words of the presenter for the individual, communication would proceed.

Video presentations provide an even greater challenge not only for the individual with a hearing disability, but also the presenter who would like to make the information available to all attending. A video of critical importance, while adequately projected so that everyone with normal vision can see the projected image, may lack captioning or video description to allow for the inclusion of a wider variety of needs. Captioning is the process of converting the audio portion of a TV/video production into readable text, usually displayed on the bottom portion of a television screen. Captioning benefits not only the hearing and visually impaired individual, but also assist persons with different learning styles, persons with learning disabilities, individuals with English as a second language, and others. Therefore, the audience that can be served by captioning may be greater than initially anticipated. Likewise, video description, a means through which audio narration accompanies the video images to provide a description of what is taking place on the screen, will also benefit a wide variety of individuals in a classroom or training setting.

Through the efforts of UW-Madison's Committee on Access and Accommodation in Instruction and Melanie Newly, the Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator, the following memo was released in December of 1999. It was done as an effort to sensitize students, faculty, and staff to the needs of our hearing-impaired peers on this and other campuses. This is the first of what may become a series of memos that will identify both educational and employment considerations for our peers with a variety of disabilities protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, Section 504, as amended, and assorted accompanying legislation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) along with the Rehabilitation Act, Section 504, as amended, and additional legislation have been enacted to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. This legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires program accessibility.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison admits and hires individuals with disabilities on a nondiscriminatory basis, and has an excellent record of doing so. In fact, we have been nationally recognized as the most "user-friendly" campus in the country for individuals with disabilities. The University takes a proactive approach to identifying areas that may need added attention. One of these areas is accessibility for individuals with hearing and/or visual disabilities when videos are used in the classroom or otherwise for instruction or training for students and employees. In addition to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, older learners, international students, students with normal hearing in acoustically noisy environments, people with learning disabilities, and visual learners benefit from the use of captioning. To assist everyone within the University and state community, the following are recommendations for your consideration.


New video purchases: It is recommended that all new videos be acquired with either open or closed captioning. Captioning is the process of converting the audio portion of a TV/video production into readable text, which is usually displayed on the bottom portion of a television screen. Open captioning is permanently visible on the monitor screen (similar to subtitles) without the use of a decoder. The use of a decoder is necessary when using closed captioning. The decoder is either an add-on device or built into TV monitors 13 inches or larger manufactured after 1993. It is essential that faculty, trainers and others know how to turn decoders on and off.

It may be more cost effective to purchase a new monitor with a built-in decoder than to purchase an add-on decoder. Although there are some classrooms and other facilities on campus that are outfitted with decoders, they are limited in number. Therefore, the preferred option for captioning is open captioning if monitors are older than 1993 models. The Space Management Office is in the process of testing add-on decoder compatibility with large projection display units (ceiling-hung projectors). Since these units are not TVs/receivers, they are not required to have built-in decoders.

In most cases, open or closed captioning is included for videos being purchased, at no additional cost. Those placing orders for videos and those reviewing and approving those orders are asked to check and see if open or closed captioning is an option for selection.

Video Production:

It is recommended that all new videos produced by the University or by others for University use be produced with open or closed captioning. Those who regularly produce videos should consider acquiring the equipment themselves, securing access to the equipment when needed, or contracting only with producers who have the equipment.

We realize that video facilities on campus may have unique situations to face when dealing with captioning. These facilities are encouraged to make reasonable efforts in meeting the need for captioning in classroom, training, and production efforts.

Archival or existing videos: It is recommended that open or closed captioning be added to existing videos currently being used for instruction or training. Technology exists that can caption existing videos. Options are being explored to acquire the equipment and make it available to the campus community. At the same time, Administrative Legal Services is investigating copyright issues related to the UW captioning videos produced by other entities.

Video Description

New video purchases: It is recommended that new videos be acquired with video description, if available. Video description means that an audio narration accompanies the video images to provide a description of what is taking place on the screen. Those making video purchases should check and see if video description is an option.

Video production: It is recommended that new videos be produced with video description, if possible. Those who produce videos themselves or for others, or those who contract for the production of videos for institutional use should check and see if video description is an option.

The most accessible format for those with hearing and/or visual disabilities is likely to be captioning and video description. However, it may not always be possible to provide these formats. Please note that some other type of access may be required for those students or employees with hearing and visual disabilities as part of a reasonable accommodation. Given this, it is recommended that, whenever possible, the recommendations above be followed when videos are to be used on campus for instruction or training. This is particularly true for videos that are used on a regular basis.

The McBurney Disability Resource Center at UW-Madison is currently completing a fact sheet relating to captioning. The sheet will include suggestions for reasonable accommodations, how to turn captioning on and off, and additional useful information. Contact Rick Postl at the McBurney Disability Resource Center for a copy.

If you have questions about the recommendations or desire information about access to equipment for captioning and video description, please contact Lisa Livingston, Director of the Instructional Media Development Center at the School of Education. She can be reached at (608) 262-3431 or via e-mail at You may also contact Bob Christiaansen at (608) 262-1218 or


Additional information and resources on captioning can be found at:

UW-Madison Campus Accessibility Information

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