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Assistive Technology Focus: Captioning, Transcripts and Audio Descriptions

12 May 2020

I love captioning. I realized that I understand content, easily retain information and enjoy my viewing experiences more when I watch videos, TV and movies with the text right on my screen. Plus, I rarely need to backtrack to figure out what a character in a movie or show said! This is an example of how accessibility benefits everyone–though I can choose to turn them off–captions make my experience better too.

For the 5% of the world’s population with auditory disabilities, captioning is not a choice, and when it is not available they cannot fully understand the content in videos. People with various disabilities also need text transcripts and audio descriptions to explain the videos and other visual content through text. Captions, transcripts and audio descriptions are also used by folks who use screen readers, refreshable braille displays and more.

Here are a few types of text implemented into videos with sound:


Captions are the text version of the speech and non-speech shown on the video as it plays, and are needed by those with auditory disabilities to understand multimedia and video. Some terms to know:

  • Closed captions refer to captions that can be turned on or off by the user as needed
  • Open captions refer to captions that automatically show up in the video and cannot be turned off
  • Subtitles are the text translation of the speech/dialogue into a language the user understands


Transcripts are comprised of the entire text of a video in one place, not on the screen like captions. The transcript text can sometimes be found right underneath the video, in a pop-out box, or on a sidebar. (Click the accordion button below to see a screenshot of examples of transcripts). Transcripts can be read by a screen reader, translated to braille display, and can help users with cognitive disabilities better understand the content in the videos they watch.

In order to meet Web Content Accessibility Guideline 1.2.3: Audio Description or Media Alternative, the transcript needs to read like a screenplay or book to be considered a media alternative. Full descriptions should be provided for all visual information, including visual context, actions and expressions of actors, and any other visual material. Other non-speech sounds are also included, such as laughter and off-screen voices.

Audio descriptions

Audio descriptions are mainly for folks who are unable to see or have visual impairments because they explain all of the action, gestures and physical description of what is happening on the screen. They are similar to reading the script of a play with the stage/actor/character directions aloud. See the example of the Lion King opening scene below:

Lion King scene with audio description via YouTube. Automated captions available.

For a more in-depth look at the types and importance of captioning, check out this page with all the details from 3Play Media. And try turning on the captions next time you watch a video in a quiet place and do not have headphones, or when you are on a crowded, noisy bus and can’t hear anything. You might just become a regular caption-user!