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May 14, 2020

Captioning for Cities, Towns, and Municipalities: Charting An Easy and Affordable Path to Meeting ADA Requirements


Is your town coming closer to captioning?

For municipal managers across the U.S., residents’ increasing awareness of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) means heightened expectations of compliance for all aspects of accessibility. Municipal ADA compliance lawsuits are on the rise: According to Governing, almost 150 municipalities have been sued since 2011 to call out accessibility non-compliance, while the Federal level saw 2,258 suits in 2018 alone. $75,000 fines can be levied for a first violation, then escalated to $150,000 for subsequent ones.

For today’s municipal video and web content, both captioning and compliance converge: Live streaming or recorded videos of public proceedings must be available with closed captioning for the hard of hearing. And this requirement doesn’t just apply to big cities or state capitals; as the Department of Justice-issued “ADA Guide for Small Towns” states, ADA Title II accessibility regulations comprise all small local governments, towns, and townships. All State and local government entities are covered regardless of size, including state governments, local governments, and special government entities.

Calling for More Civic Captioning

The very real prospect of an expensive and time-consuming ADA compliance lawsuit sounds like a dark cloud hanging over municipal administrators and IT directors. But there’s also a major silver lining to be found within these recent developments.

Thanks to rapid advances in technology, offering closed captioning to citizens is far easier and more cost-effective than ever before. Solutions providers like EEG Video are helping city and town IT directors implement closed captioning quickly and intuitively, with advanced cloud-based offerings like Lexi automatic captioning and iCap Falcon that make setup simple while vastly reducing the logistics, cost, and stress that closed captioning once entailed.

Significantly streamlining the municipal closed captioning infrastructure is key, since only the largest cities have dedicated video production specialists on staff. “In the broadcast world, it's very clear who's responsible for captioning,” says Daniell Krawczyk, founder of the service provider Municipal Captioning and an expert in captioning for public, educational, and government content. “In most towns and cities, it's much less clear, which often makes it hard for them to commit to captioning. They must determine who’s responsible for implementing, maintaining, and tracking the captioning quality. Is it part of an existing TV channel? Is it the city clerk? Is it someone from the IT side, who normally doesn't touch video at all? It can be hard to know who should handle it.

Piling onto the problem is that the amount of material citizens expect will be captioned is expanding in every direction, in terms of both sheer volume and number of platforms.

“In the past, cities would worry only about captioning key events: one particular meeting, weekly event, or emergency press release,” he explains. “But now they're starting to want captioning for every live meeting including the school meetings, the sewer and water treatment meetings and the parks meetings. Some towns are even saying they want to serve their citizens on everything that airs on the local channel 24/7, going to the extreme of captioning every single thing that goes out.

“Cities, towns, and counties are also now more frequently making content for social media like Facebook and YouTube,” Krawczyk continues. “Instead of just considering their meetings, they're now doing short videos about parades, new parks, and new people in jobs. Municipalities understand they must make that content accessible as well.

And it’s not just about providing closed captioning for content moving forward. In many cases, cities and towns are under pressure to go back and update everything in their video vault. “Municipalities often have very large archives of content that they are now deciding to caption,” says Krawczyk. “They might have 10 years’ worth of old meetings that are available on YouTube or other services—deaf and hard-of-hearing constituents are demonstrating a reasonable need to have all of that material captioned.”

Activist litigation is proliferating, resulting in judgments and compliance deadlines in places like Florida’s Palm Beach County. Cities and towns in all 50 states are striving to get ahead of accessibility mandates, before they receive a summons that can quickly grow in scope.

“Municipalities are concerned that there's a liability they’re opening themselves up to without captioning,” Krawczyk notes. “The ADA requires effective communication for all citizens. Some cities and counties have been sued, and when that happens they then not only have to caption everything, they may have to address every noncompliant thing in the city: Every single sidewalk, curb, ramp, bathroom, sink that's a little too high, or toilet that's too low becomes open to re-evaluation. It's usually the city attorney or county attorney that sees this as an area that, if left unaddressed, could become very costly for them.

Captioning Accuracy Matters

There are over 12,000 municipalities across America, each one with its own specific needs when it comes to captioning. A common thread Krawczyk sees, however, is a shared awareness that their captioning coverage has to be comprehensive and accurate—communication alternatives must not only be present but actually work well to qualify as ADA compliant.

“Achieving effective communication often requires that towns provide auxiliary aids and services,” including open and closed captioning, the ADA Guide for Small Towns states. “Towns must provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services where they are necessary to achieve an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, a service, program, or activity conducted by or for the town. The town must give primary consideration to the type of auxiliary aid requested by a person with a disability.”

“Municipalities want accurate captions,” confirms Krawczyk. “In keeping, they want the ability to make corrections and ensure things like names of city councilors, streets, and neighboring communities are spelled correctly. What's really key for them is the acronyms: When they have the meeting and they use the same phrase over and over, they want to be able to put those things into the dictionary.

“There are free automatic captions that occur when people upload things to YouTube or other online platforms. That’s a step in the right direction, but municipalities tell me they want to be sure that when the city puts up a video on its YouTube or Facebook account that it has accurate captions. They need the ability to replace what gets automatically generated with something that they have control over.”

When Krawczyk drills down with a civic client, he often recommends a mix of ASR (automatic speech recognition) captioning solutions and the more traditional human live captioner, depending on the situation. “There are cities, counties, and universities that want to have the human accuracy and logic that goes into having a human captioner,” he observes. “And so a lot of municipalities do want quotes for when they're captioning special events or a limited amount of weekly meetings.

“On the other hand, there are towns that want to cover a large amount of content, so much so that traditional services would exceed their budget. So when they're looking at ASR/automatic captioning solutions, it's because they're working with fixed budgets and trying to do a very large amount of content.”

Krawczyk often recommends EEG solutions to his municipal captioning clients. “EEG solutions have their iCap captioning-over-IP platform, which means that cities and towns can easily have the best of both worlds,” he says. “They can use EEG’s Lexi automatic captioning ASR solution if they wish, or they can connect to a worldwide network of live human captioners over the iCap platform.

“I’ve seen that cities and towns, especially those that produce good quality audio, have been very happy with the accuracy of Lexi, as well as how easy it is to implement and manage. EEG’s new Lexi Leash application has many administrative features that seem to have been designed with municipalities specifically in mind.”

Positive Outcomes for Municipalities

The desire to avoid a lawsuit can be a powerful motivator to commence municipal captioning. But cities and towns that are already captioning are also feeling the positive impact of increasing accessibility for all of their citizens.

“One of the cities that's now using Lexi recently told me that they're very thankful for our captioning collaboration,” says Krawczyk. “They're very proud of the captioning that they provide their citizens, and they've had nothing but good feedback. Another city told me their citizens prefer the comprehensive captioning for all programming, over when they only captioned individual events.

“What municipalities are hearing from their constituents is that they like more content captioned. In turn, the city employees take pride in serving not only the deaf, but also a much greater number who may be hard of hearing, or simply want to stay fully in touch with their community.”