There’s a lot to celebrate in how far we’ve come in the fight for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) for our country, but we find these noble efforts conflict with accessibility at times. Too often, accommodations created by and/or for the Deaf community (such as text-to-911 and closed captioning) are first fought against, then begrudgingly accepted, and finally, usurped by the masses with the needs of the Deaf community being forgotten. In the age of technology, people who are Deaf or hard of hearing can experience digital media like never before. With a click of a button (or even automatically), we can read what’s happening in our news, online, or as we Netflix and chill. But what the f**k s going on with captioning?
I recently discovered that Automated Speech Recognition, or “ASR” is being CENSORED. My strategist and I communicate using a combination of Slack (obsessed), text, and video chat. We rely heavily on Google Meet for our meetings, where we can use live video and it’s easy to turn on captions and chat along the side of the video. She is a hearing person and I Deaf, and we have been able to successfully communicate. Our relationship is fun and we tend to swear … a lot. Recently, while on one of our planning calls, I was stunned when I saw her language start to appear with stars where letters belonged. That data set looked f*cking awesome, my new design was f**king gorgeous! I stared in utter disbelief that I, as a Deaf person, was not clearly being shown what was being said. I immediately reached out to some of my accessibility connections and let them know what I’d found. They were all equally flabbergasted and enraged. We started poking around as a group and found this censorship rollout was launched recently to filter offensive language in automated captioning. But had they even considered the conflict this created with accessibility, the very reason for the existence of captioning?
First, let’s clarify the difference between captions and subtitles. While they are similar, they each serve their own purpose. Captioning is specifically meant to enhance the viewing experience for Deaf or hard of hearing individuals. In addition to the text, they are supposed to display information like speaker differentiation and describe other relevant sounds in words. Captions may be embedded into the video or have the option to turn off sound completely (closed captions). Subtitles, on the other hand, are simply text meant for a hearing audience. It’s assumed the viewer can hear all that other stuff so subtitles are good for someone who may not speak the language, or need some translation. Automated captioning is more similar to subtitles as opposed to captioning and often are without punctuation or capitalization. There are some companies that provide a hybrid method which is a combination of ASR with human editing capabilities. In that situation, it may resemble captioning if the captions include descriptive effects like sound and punctuation.