Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Submission to Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on CBC accessibility

This submission, dated 2007.03.05, is made by Joe Clark, Toronto.

  1. I have a 25-year interest in accessibility for people with disabilities.
  2. I gave evidence before the Committee in 2002.
  3. I do consulting work for clients on accessibility, chiefly Web accessibility and issues like captioning and audio description. (I have done roughly four small jobs for the CBC, with whom I have no current contracts.)
  4. I lecture globally on accessibility.
  5. I wrote the book Building Accessible Websites (New Riders, 2003).
  6. The Atlantic Monthly called me “the king of closed captions.”
  7. Supported by some 200 micropatrons, and with significant industry endorsement, I am raising funds for an accessibility research project, the Open & Closed Project, which will research, test, and publish standards for captioning, audio description, subtitling, and dubbing.

Quick introduction: What’s wrong with accessibility at CBC?

Why does CBC have a 100%-captioning requirement?

And, more importantly, are they living up to it?

CBC has to caption every second of its broadcasts on CBC Television and Newsworld...
A deaf person, Henry Vlug, filed a human-rights complaint about missing and inadequate captioning – and won. Starting in November 2002, CBC claimed to comply with that decision by captioning everything on CBC TV and Newsworld
...but they aren’t captioning everything
For three years, I watched CBC and took notes. I found well over a hundred cases where captioning was missing or inadequate
I published my results, which seemed to be taken seriously
In November 2005, I published my findings. The Canadian Human Rights Commission forwarded my findings to CBC, which eventually sent me two letters in response
CBC conceded all my points about missing captioning...
CBC agreed that all the kinds of captioning errors I found had happened or could have happened, and claimed to be tightening up its procedures
...but CBC sounded defensive and angry on other points
CBC claimed that subtitled movies don’t need to be captioned (even though sound effects are never subtitled), that scrollup captioning was just fine for dramas and comedies, and that real-time captioning really could be used for programs that aren’t live. And they angrily defended themselves, using terms like disagree strenuously and dispute... vehemently
Then the Human Rights Commission tried to scuttle the case
My lawyer used the word “complaint” in a letter to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which seized on it and made it sound like there was never a complaint in process and I’d have to file one from scratch. Basically, the Human Rights Commission tried to cancel its own investigation
And CBC captioning hasn’t really improved
None of the different kinds of captioning errors and omissions I found have been rectified. Nothing has been completely fixed. (I’m still taking notes, and now I publish my results regularly)
If CBC can’t maintain 100% accessibility, who can?
If a public broadcaster cannot maintain a legal requirement to provide 100% captioning, what hope do we have for 100% captioning anywhere? Why would private broadcasters, who will do anything to save a penny, put in any extra effort to attain 100% captioning? What hope do we have for audio description for the blind on most, or all, programming?

CBC has refused repeated requests to meet to discuss captioning (even after promising as far back as 2002 to do so). The Canadian Human Rights Commission has gone to some lengths to attempt to derail the entire investigation.

Nonetheless, my facts and interpretation are correct. CBC not only was not living up to its 100%-captioning requirement, it still isn’t. In fact, I have amassed a list of uncaptioned or incorrectly- or improperly-captioned programming that aired after I submitted my intervention.

French captioning

In 2004, retired Canadian Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, a hard-of-hearing person, filed a complaint against Société Radio-Canada concerning captioning. As part of the settlement process, SRC agreed to submit a report on the state of captioning, particularly real-time captioning, on Radio-Canada and Réseau de l’information.

I read the French original, entitled “Comité de travail concernant le sous-titrage codé en français à la télévision de Radio-Canada” (English version) and wrote the only known critique of it. The proposed remedy would increase the available pool of real-time captioners by a paltry two people and would not actually guarantee 100% captioning. Nor was there any discussion of quality standards. Nor did CBC commit to more captioning on its French channels.

Online captioning

I have carried out a couple of consulting contracts for CBC. One job concerned the reuse of TV captions in online video. We had a whole project up and running for two years starting in 2002, but it was later cancelled without notice (and I don’t even know who cancelled it). This was another leadership position that CBC totally blew.

In this project, we took CBC Newsworld video reports, decoded the TV closed captions, and posted the result as a separate video file. If you didn’t want captioning, you did nothing special; you clicked or selected the regular video footage. If you wanted captioning, you clicked the open-captioned version. Apart from my modest consulting fee, the total hardware cost was about $600. And it worked well while it was being used.

If you’re wondering what the captions looked like, well, this is now surprisingly hard to demonstrate since CBC “reorganized” its Web site and caused thousands of URLs to disappear. Even if the captioned video files are available, their presence has been obscured by removing the “CC” logo or any reference to it. This is another way in which CBC is destroying its own history, all because certain filenames are no longer linked.

Audio description

Audio description (sometimes incorrectly called descriptive video, among a large number of other malapropisms) is an added narration track for blind viewers. It talks you through the program, explaining what’s happening onscreen that you cannot understand from the main soundtrack alone. On analogue TV, audio description is transmitted on second audio program (SAP), which you have to turn on if you want to listen to description. (That is sometimes an impossible process for a blind person due to the use of onscreen menus, but there are many systems, including Rogers digital cable and Bell ExpressVu, that are quite accessible.)

CBC has no CRTC requirement to air audio description. Nonetheless, due to commercial pressure (the public broadcaster can hardly go ahead with no described programming when for-profit broadcasters like Global do a lot of description), CBC Television airs a few described shows. But it is practically impossible to find out what they are. For the 2006 broadcast season, CBC did away with its so-called hosted-prime segments, in which a host introduces a program or a series of programs. Described shows were mentioned as such in the introduction, which blind viewers could hear. That’s gone now, and, as with many other networks, there is really no way to find out what shows are described. You can, with difficulty, look at each individual TV show’s episode listings on the online CBC schedule, but that hardly counts.

It is impossible to air conventional audio description on Newsworld. Second audio program on Newsworld is used for VoicePrint, the monopoly English-language radio reading service. You get one or the other. The many programs on Newsworld that could be described, like documentaries, cannot be. (It is always possible to run a program with open description, i.e., a description track you can’t turn off and that everybody who can hear must listen to, but nobody does that.)

CBC tends to use the most arrogant and ideological audio-description supplier in Canada, AudioVision Canada. Interestingly enough, AudioVision’s sibling company is, in fact, the same VoicePrint whose carriage on Newsworld prevents the use of audio description there. One company’s accessible reading service blocks and precludes any other accessibility for blind people on Newsworld.

Caption quality

CBC has significant quality problems with captioning.

  1. Insistence on ALL-CAPITALS CAPTIONING in most cases.
  2. Homegrown captioning “standard” that differs from Radio-Canada’s. Having two standards means you have no standard. And neither standard is published, let alone tested.
  3. Overuse of real-time captioning for shows that aren’t live.
  4. Insufficient preparation of real-time captioners: Most sports programming that isn’t an NFL or CFL game mangles nearly all the proper names, since the captioners were not given the names in advance.
  5. Overuse of scrollup captioning, an unreadable method of captioning for fictional programming.
  6. Refusal to caption subtitled programming or outside commercials.
  7. Second-rate proofing and copy-editing.
  8. Refusal to use Canadian English: In an example of colonialism, CBC uses British English, and can’t even get that right.

Open standards in accessibility: The Open & Closed Project

I am the founder of the Open & Closed Project, an independent nonprofit research project that has been incubating for five years. Its goal will be to write a set of standards (how-to manuals) for captioning, audio description, subtitling, and dubbing. Surprisingly enough, there are no such standards – at least none that were developed via an open process and tested with actual viewers, as ours will be. We expect to spend four years developing the standards, then a year testing them in the real world. We’ll publish the specifications and train and certify practitioners.

At that point, it will be possible for broadcasters like the CBC, producers, regulators, and others to insist that all their accessibility be Open & Closed–certified. Also at that point, there won’t be as many kinds of captioning or audio description (to use two examples) as there are companies doing it; everything will be standardized. There will just be captioning or description, not CBC’s style of captioning or CTV’s or some low-rent service provider’s.

The Open & Closed Project has industry support

We have signed support letters from captioning and description providers, software makers, and broadcasters in four countries.

The Open & Closed Project has grassroots support

Nearly 200 people made voluntary financial contributions to underwrite fundraising for Open & Closed Project, and many more have provided moral support online.

The Open & Closed Project knows all the right researchers

Not only are we on a first-name basis with all the right researchers in the accessibility field, we have verbal cooperation agreements with several of them. Researcher loyalties are not easy to shift.

The Open & Closed Project does not have CBC support

The CBC has shown no official support for the Project, though some staff are privately supportive (including one person who wrote a support letter). It would be significant indeed if Canada’s national public broadcaster accepted the need for outside independent standards and supported their development. Such support could take any number of forms starting with a public statement to that effect. To get there, we’d have to overcome CBC’s intractable arrogance and defensiveness.

Not only has the CBC failed to support the Open & Closed Project, it has engaged in secret closed-door meetings with other broadcasters and audio-description service providers to rewrite existing standards without consulting researchers, blind viewers, or even cable and satellite operators. This is another black eye in the CBC’s accessibility portfolio.

CBC reused my previous evidence to the Committee

In its submission to the CRTC’s review of over-the-air television, CBC had the temerity to quote passages on captioning from the Lincoln report (Standing Committee on Canadian [as CBC called it, “Cultural”] Heritage, Our Cultural Sovereignty). Those passages were adapted almost verbatim from my evidence to the committee. This is a rather flagrant insult even by CBC standards.

CBC has a 100%-captioning requirement that I proved they were not meeting. I assembled three years of evidence, published it, and submitted it to the CBC and the Canadian Human Rights Commission. CBC’s lawyer could not disprove any of my evidence but imperiously dismissed three years of work as an “informal complaint.” Then CBC has the gall to quote back my own words as reasons not to provide the 100% captioning that is legally required.


  1. CBC isn’t living up to its obligations to provide 100% captioning.
  2. CBC does barely anything with audio description, and what it actually does almost nobody knows about.
  3. CBC blew an early leadership position in online captioning.
  4. CBC staff are arrogant and defensive (and are probably also arrogant and defensive about being arrogant and defensive).
  5. CBC has failed to support the sole viable independent accessibility research project.

List of attachments

My Web pages on CBC accessibility (mostly captioning) are located at

  1. Original list of CBC captioning errors and ongoing updates
  2. Response to report on captioning on French CBC channels
  3. Basic information about the Open & Closed Project

Posted: 2007.03.05 14:13

Homepage: Joe Clark Homepage: Joe Clark Media access (captioning, Web accessibility, etc.) Graphic and industrial design Journalism, articles, book