Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Why don’t deaf people care about captioning quality?

In January 2006, I canvassed the leaders of deaf/hard-of-hearing organizations in the U.S. and Canada to explore why everyday deaf people do not really care about captioning quality. Presidents or executive directors were E-mailed directly. Organizations queried included:

  1. National Association of the Deaf (Kelby Brick)
  2. Hearing Loss Association of America (Terry Portis)
  3. National Black Deaf Advocates (Thomas Samuels)
  4. Canadian Hard of Hearing Association (Carole Willams-Théberge)
  5. Canadian Association of the Deaf (Jim Roots)

All of them, very much including Jim Roots, refused to respond.

But deaf people do care!

I warned my correspondents that I already assumed their first response would be an indignant rejection of the premise: Of course we care about captioning quality!

My contention is that deaf people observably do not care about quality of captioning or else we wouldn’t be stuck with so much lousy captioning. A few deaf people here and there may complain if a program lacks captioning or if captions terminate partway through a program. Deaf organizations may lobby for increased quantity of captioning, or, in a glancing reference to quality, for the use of real-time captioning instead of electronic-newsroom captioning.

But, after 25 years in this field, I see no evidence whatsoever – none – that significant numbers of ordinary deaf people care about captioning quality, or at least care enough to do anything about it. I don’t see any evidence of individual complaints or organized lobbying to increase quality. Nor do I see any effort at all to penalize badly-captioned programming or to oppose the use of improper captioning methods (e.g., scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming; or, much worse, centred scrollup captioning; or real-time captioning for shows that are demonstrably not live, including fictional narrative programming).

All the foregoing is my considered evaluation. I have already acknowledged your likely objection that deaf people do care; I just don’t see anything backing that up. I also acknowledge that deaf organizations do some lobbying on captioning, but I have already acknowledged its limitations.

I asked for responses, on the record and for attribution, to the following hypotheses that attempt to explain why deaf people do not care about captioning quality.

The system seems to be set up to respond to complaints, which is a problem right there. It is also difficult to make a complaint.

If a program is presented with bad captioning, there seems to be an implicit expectation that you the captioning viewer are expected to complain about it. There is no implied expectation that the captioner should have performed adequately in the first place.

But making a complaint is difficult. Sometimes the captioner of a program is not listed, or the caption credit is destroyed by the broadcaster (e.g., by scrunching end credits without using a data bridge to preserve captions). Or you could simply blink and miss the credit. More relevantly, you’re watching TV for pleasure, and if it’s 10:30 at night and you’re lying on the couch, you have no easy way to jot down all the details of a complaint. It is difficult to discuss captioning without having a tape rolling in front of you; writing things down doesn’t do the medium justice in the first place.

Older deaf people, who went through the residential school system, were given poor educations, resulting in lower literacy that prevents them from even noticing mistakes.

The residential school system in previous decades is now known to have been harmful to many deaf people. In studies, reading skills have been shown to be poor among this group. There is cause for optimism for younger generations, who not only had better schooling but were exposed to many more things to read, including captioned TV shows. But the older generations were often given a raw deal and ended up with lower literacy.

As a result, this group with lower literacy has trouble even noticing quality issues that are obtrusive and bothersome to people with higher literacy.

Deaf people can’t hear, so they don’t know what they’re missing.

When there’s a significant mismatch between spoken words and captions, deaf people may simply never notice due to the fact that they’re deaf.

Deaf people are thankful for captioning and worry that any kind of complaint might result in losing captioning altogether.

Instead of viewing accessibility to programming as a legal or human right, some deaf people are thankful for any favours done for them and don’t want to seem ungrateful. They resist complaining at all lest producers simply stop captioning a program.

Additional issues

I also asked correspondents to feel free to list other explanations for the observable phenomenon that deaf people do not agitate in any great numbers for increased caption quality. I additionally welcomed any comments on the phenomenon in which deaf people clamour for their needs to be met but do not per se care much about or work toward general accessibility for people with disabilities.

There were, as stated, no responses whatsoever.

Other responses and objections

I ran these ideas past the subscribers of the Captioning mailing list and most respondents thought there was something to each of them. One respondent dismissed all of them as generalizations, which they are. What they are not is inaccurate generalizations.

Posted: 2006.02.24

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