Why are closed captioning services a big deal? Maybe you don’t know anyone with a significant hearing deficit. Or do you? According to the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million people) aged 18 and over report some hearing difficulty. About two percent of adults aged 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss, increasing to 8.5% for adults from 55 to 64, 25% for adults aged 65 to 74, and 50% for American adults aged 75 and older. In addition, the NIDCD estimates that approximately 15% of Americans (26 million people) between the ages of 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss due to exposure to noise at work or during leisure activities.
As life expectancy continues to lengthen in the United States, it can be expected that more and more people diagnosed with substantial hearing loss will be affected by communication deficits over longer periods of time. So, what are their communication options? Reading and writing, certainly, but more and more people are eschewing print media for television and the Internet to meet their information needs. It’s quite likely a substantial number of people with hearing difficulties will learn American Sign Language, but ASL has limited availability.
What about hearing aids? Definitely some people will enhance their communication ability with hearing aids. But due to various reasons (e.g., cost, stigma, physical discomfort), only 30% of those over the age of 70 who could benefit from hearing aids actually use them, according to the NIDCD, and the percentage drops even more for younger adults. This equates to tens of millions of American adults with hearing deficits inadequately addressed by current communication modalities.
In addition, United States law now requires closed captioning services be made accessible for all programming produced by streaming video services and must be provided by broadcasters for all content distributed across the Internet if captioned when originally presented on-air (although in many cases, closed captioning services are still not available for some programs). When more and more people are looking to electronic media for their news and information needs, the importance of greater accessibility and transparency is clear.
But is it an unenforceable mandate?
In a BBC report last year, YouTube itself stated that its closed captioning services for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing are “by no means good enough yet.” According to the report, as of February 2015 YouTube had more than one billion unique users every month with over six billion hours of content accessed and viewed each month. According to YouTube’s own figures, approximately one-quarter of their content is closed captioned, and of that, the great bulk is produced via automatic captioning. A prominent vlogger and advocate for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing states in the report that the automatic captions generated by YouTube make “absolutely no sense.”
So, how serious are we about accessibility? Three-quarters of YouTube’s media content are not accessible at all via closed captioning services, and of the 25% that are available a tremendous amount is lacking in accuracy, frequently rendering a transcript that bears little if any relationship to what is actually being spoken.
The most encouraging response to this sorry state of affairs has been via accessibility advocates encouraging volunteers to personally step in and caption clips themselves. The BBC report states that soon after a prominent video supporting better closed captioning began to circulate, over 2000 captions were submitted in 70 different languages. While this is gratifying, clearly it’s only a drop in the bucket when videos posted to YouTube alone account for nearly an hour uploaded for each person on the planet each month. And while this work is being done with virtuous intent, who’s responsible for guaranteeing the accuracy of these captions? For universal accessibility for all to be taken seriously, the accuracy of the captions accompanying electronic media must be taken seriously as well.