The Three Musketeers of Accessibility: Captions, Dialogue-Only Transcripts, and Descriptive Transcripts

October 2, 2023


In the digital age, accessibility is not just a buzzword; it's a necessity. As content creators, it's our responsibility to ensure that our multimedia content is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. But how do we go about it? Enter the three musketeers of accessibility: Captions, Dialogue-Only Transcripts, and Descriptive Transcripts. While they may seem similar, each serves a unique purpose and offers different levels of accessibility. Let's dive in to understand these better.

Captions: The Real-Time Heroes

Captions are the text versions of the spoken word presented within multimedia. They are synchronized with the video and provide a real-time reading experience. Captions are essential for individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing, as they allow them to follow along with the video content.


  • Real-time accessibility
  • Synchronized with video
  • Essential for compliance with WCAG 2.1 Level A standards


  • Limited to spoken content
  • May not include important non-verbal cues or visual elements

Dialogue-Only Transcripts: The Almost-There Sidekick

Dialogue-only transcripts are text versions of the spoken content in a video. They are often provided alongside the video as a downloadable document. While they do make the spoken content accessible, they fall short in a significant way: they don't include non-verbal or visual elements.


  • Covers spoken content
  • Can be used independently of the video


  • Insufficient for WCAG 2.1 Level A Compliance: Dialogue-only transcripts do not meet the needs of all users, particularly those who are Deaf-blind or have cognitive disabilities.
  • Lacks Visual Elements: Important visual cues, background information, and other non-verbal elements are missing, making the content less accessible.

Descriptive Transcripts: The Unsung Superheroes

Descriptive transcripts are the gold standard when it comes to making multimedia content accessible. They go beyond mere dialogue to include a comprehensive account of all significant visual and auditory elements in the video. According to W3C guidelines, a descriptive transcript should include not just the spoken words but also the key visual elements to meet WCAG 2.1 Level A standards. Further enriching this practice, the Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) offers a Description Key, developed in partnership with the American Foundation for the Blind, which provides recommendations, suggestions, and best practices for creating effective descriptive transcripts.

What Must Be Included in a Descriptive Transcript?

Spoken Dialogue: Just like any other transcript, the spoken content is the foundation.

Example: "John: I think we should consider alternative energy sources."

Speaker Identification: Knowing who is speaking is crucial for understanding the context.

Example: "[John] I think we should consider alternative energy sources."

Non-Speech Sounds: Important non-speech elements like laughter, applause, or background music should be included.

Example: "[Applause]"

Visual Elements: Descriptions of key visual elements like slides, actions, or expressions.

Example: "[John looks puzzled]"

Text Elements: Any text that appears on the screen, like slides or captions, should be included.

Example: "[Slide: Benefits of Solar Energy]"

Contextual Information: Background settings, mood, or any other contextual elements that contribute to understanding.

Example: "[Background: A sunny classroom with environmental posters on the wall]"

Interactive Elements: If the video includes interactive elements like a poll or Q&A, these should be described.

Example: "[A poll appears on the screen asking, 'What's your favorite renewable energy source?']"


  • Comprehensive: Covers both audio and visual elements, providing a full understanding of the content.
  • WCAG 2.1 Level A Compliant: Meets the needs of a broader range of users, including those who are Deaf-blind.
  • Enhanced User Experience: Offers a richer, more inclusive experience for all users.


  • Time-Consuming: Requires more effort and time to create compared to dialogue-only transcripts.

Real-World Examples:

Educational Video:

Dialogue: "Professor: As you can see, photosynthesis is crucial for plant life."

Descriptive: "[Professor stands next to a diagram of a plant cell] Professor: As you can see, photosynthesis is crucial for plant life. [Slide changes to show the photosynthesis process]"

Corporate Presentation:

Dialogue: "CEO: Our profits have increased by 20% this quarter."

Descriptive: "[CEO stands in front of a bar graph showing rising profits] CEO: Our profits have increased by 20% this quarter. [Audience applauds]"

Cooking Tutorial:

Dialogue: "Chef: Now, let's add some spices."

Descriptive: "[Chef picks up a jar labeled 'Cumin'] Chef: Now, let's add some spices. [Camera zooms in on the pan as spices are added]"

Why Dialogue-Only Transcripts Fall Short

While dialogue-only transcripts may seem like a quick fix, they are not sufficient to meet the requirements of WCAG 2.1 Level A or the needs of all users. They lack the visual elements and non-verbal cues that are crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the content. This makes them less inclusive and potentially alienates users who rely on these additional cues for comprehension.


Captions, dialogue-only transcripts, and descriptive transcripts each have their role to play in making multimedia content accessible. However, if you're aiming for true inclusivity and compliance with WCAG 2.1 Level A standards, descriptive transcripts are the way to go. They provide a complete picture, ensuring that your content is accessible to the widest possible audience.

So, the next time you're creating or updating multimedia content, remember: Descriptive transcripts aren't just an add-on; they're a necessity. Let's strive for a more inclusive digital world, one transcript at a time.

For more insights into accessibility and how you can make your content more inclusive, stay tuned to our blog. Let's make the digital world accessible for everyone! 

Share this post