accomodations

Close-Minded Captioning

By Amber Gordon

Sound can provide remarkable connections to the world around us. As a Longwood University communication sciences and disorders student, I’ve come to better understand how people with hearing loss experience sound, and that improvements to accessibility are urgently needed.

I have typical hearing, but know from Longwood professor Mani Aguilar, Au.D., that insufficient access to auditory information can have negative emotional and social consequences in many areas of life, including entertainment. Watching a TV show with a friend with typical hearing and not understanding why they are laughing is bound to make one feel left out.

While hearing aids and cochlear implants are extraordinarily beneficial to communication, many people with hearing loss rely on captioning to fully access audiovisual media. Because of its necessity, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires closed captioning for video transcripts by state and local government entities and “places of public accommodation” (including universities, libraries, and hotels). Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act require the electronic communications of U.S. federal offices and federally-funded organizations to be accessible and captioned. 

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For TV programs, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires TV captions to be “accurate, synchronous, complete, and properly placed.” The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act calls for “video programming that is closed captioned on TV to be closed captioned when distributed on the Internet.”

But there are no existing laws to address captioning in the majority of online video. This was brought to light when the National Association of the Deaf sued Netflix for the lack of closed captioning on videos on their site. The district judge ruled in favor of closed captioning on streaming services; however, because this was not a Supreme Court ruling, the case did not establish a national model for ADA’s standards for online services and businesses. 

Many streaming services do include closed captions within their video services with no stipulations for quality. As noted in HuffPost, the Netflix series Queer Eye had inaccurate captions that censored profanity and changed words being used in multiple instances. A Reddit user states that shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime, in general, do not signify who is talking when they are off-screen, creating confusion as to which character is saying what.  

Meanwhile, platforms like YouTube and Facebook remain unregulated. Enabling auto-captioning on videos is merely an option for video creators, and, in many cases, this auto-generated captioning is not accurate. For precise captions, video creators must make manual edits, which can be time-consuming or expensive. 

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Consider also that tone and verbal inflection can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Spoken words are just part of the piece the puzzle for those who rely on captions. According to The Atlantic, machine translation “can’t register sarcasm, context, or word emphasis. It can’t capture the cacophonous sounds of multiple voices speaking at once, essential for understanding the voice of an angry crowd of protestors or a cheering crowd. It just types what it registers.” 

We already have requirements for government programming and news alert systems. We have accessibility laws for television and even for some online content. But as entertainment becomes increasingly digital, these regulations must be transferable.

Otherwise, information remains lost in translation because captioning laws are only applicable to some circumstances. Isn’t access for everyone, regardless of hearing ability, enough reason to advocate for expanded captioning? Why must those with hearing loss be kept back by where we’ve drawn the line on accessibility?

If you are a hearing individual, I encourage you to place yourself in the shoes of someone with hearing loss. Mute your TV for a day. Mute the sound on your device playing YouTube or Facebook and enable closed captioning. How long does it take until you get annoyed? Frustrated? I’m willing to bet not very long. 

It is undeniable that closed captions have contributed greatly to the advancement of accessibility for people with hearing loss, but much work remains. We have to recognize the urgency of reliable captioning in online media.

What can we do? If you’re in a restaurant and notice that there are TVs playing without captions, politely request them. If you run a business where there are waiting rooms and lounges with televisions, please turn on captions. If you watch YouTube and notice that one of your favorite creators does not caption their videos, leave comments or write emails to encourage them. Hold streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime accountable by letting them know when captions are inaccurate or poorly transcribed. Lastly, if you’re watching television or your favorite show and you notice poor closed captioning, file a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission under the “Access for People with Disabilities” section of their Consumer Complaint Center. 

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Slowly but surely, if we continue to think of others who are unlike ourselves, strive for empathy and advocate for equal accessibility for all, a change can and will be made. 

Amber Gordon is an aspiring speech-language pathologist who lives in Virginia.

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Advancing Accessibility in the Audiology Profession

By Lauren McGrath

Born with a profound sensorineural hearing loss, Jessica Hoffman, Au.D., CCC-A, never believed she could become an audiologist. In fact, she didn’t consider the profession until her final year as a biopsychology undergraduate at Tufts University.

By then, Dr. Hoffman was the recipient of successful hearing loss intervention and treatment for two decades. Diagnosed at 13 months, she was fitted with hearing aids by age two, practiced speech and hearing at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing (today the Center for Hearing and Communication) until five, and learned American Sign Language (ASL) at 10. She pursued a mainstream education since preschool with daily visits from a teacher of the deaf. Dr. Hoffman received cochlear implants at ages 14 and 24, respectively and, in college and graduate school, enjoyed a variety of classroom accommodations including ASL interpreters, CART, C-Print, notetakers, and FM systems.

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After Tufts, Dr. Hoffman worked as a lab technician at Massachusetts Eye and Ear as her interests in studying hearing began to grow. But she doubted her abilities to perform key tasks in audiology, like speech perception tests and listening checks with patients. After speaking with others in the field with hearing loss, she became less apprehensive. Engaging with mentors like Samuel Atcherson, Ph.D., and Suzanne Yoder, Au.D., who have greatly advanced opportunities for individuals with hearing loss in audiology, further cemented Dr. Hoffman’s self-confidence. In 2010, she completed her Doctor of Audiology from Northwestern University.

Today, Dr. Hoffman is happy to work with both children and adults at the ENT Faculty Practice/Westchester Cochlear Implant Program in Hawthorne, NY. She takes pride in helping her patients realize that they are not alone with hearing loss and that technology, like her own cochlear implants, can provide immense benefits to communication. Dr. Hoffman is motivated to help her patients understand that hearing loss does not define who one is and can be viewed as a gain rather than as a limitation.

Dr. Hoffman’s career is not exempt from challenges. Fortunate to receive accommodations as a child and young adult, she is disappointed by the tools that are missing in a field that serves those with hearing loss. Though she credits her own workplace as being very understanding, Dr. Hoffman points out the difficulties she experiences during team meetings and conversations with patients who speak English as a second language. She is grateful to have considerate colleagues who will repeat themselves as needed or offer to facilitate verbal communication with non-native English-speaking patients.

At audiology conferences, however, necessities like CART, FM systems, and/or interpreters are often lacking for professionals with hearing loss. Dr. Hoffman and others with hearing loss in the audiology field have petitioned to encourage accessibility at such events. She has had to take on the responsibility of finding CART vendors for conference organizers to ensure her own optimal listening experience. She reports being brushed off by meeting leaders and a sense of doubt in her abilities and those of her colleagues with hearing loss.

Dr. Hoffman also wishes to see greater accessibility in audiology offices nationwide, including recorded speech perception materials, captioning for videos or TV shows in the waiting room, and email exchanges with patients, rather than phone calls. She’d like all audiology staff to be well-versed in communicating with people with hearing loss and to have a strong understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as it pertains to hearing loss. Dr. Hoffman also thinks facilities would benefit from hiring ASL interpreters or Cued Speech transliterators as needed. Her ideas would help professionals like her and patients alike.

Accommodations for people with hearing loss and other disabilities in academics, public sectors, and the workforce—audiology included—should be provided without question, says Dr. Hoffman, who has had the burden of reversing many people’s misconceptions about her capability to thrive independently in her career. “The self-advocacy never ends, but it has made me stronger and more confident in my own abilities as a deaf person. I am proud to have a hearing loss because it has shaped me into the person I am today.”

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