The Right to Closed Captions for Everyone

I’ve never thought much about closed captions. As an interpreter, I tend to think most about how best to provide interpreting services into ASL instead of providing print or a transcript. Plus, closed captions are no substitute for your native language. How about YOU try reading captions for an hour and a half movie. Not so easy. And in my experience with Deaf youth, the speed and fluency of their English print literacy isn’t developed enough to make captions more than colloquial sentences at ultra-sonic speed.  But today I ran into the problem of closed captions in force.


I regularly assign a video from a  PBS-produced series called E2 Design. The video describes Bogotá’s excellent improvements for public busses, pedestrian ways, and bicycle paths. It’s a great video for seeing positive change in Latin America. This semester I have a student that would benefit greatly from captions. (In fact, probably most ESL students would benefit from English captions, because the Spanish-inflected English can be hard to understand on the video.) The DVD has captions. But where this video is available online – the PBS website, YouTube, etc. – there are no captions. Bummer. And the technological journey I’ve had this afternoon trying to get captions has been mind-numbingly frustrating.

I am aware that there are other ways of solving this problem that might involve less of my own time. But I decided to try an experiment: what if I really needed captioning and I – a tech-savvy 30-something with an advanced degree – am the only one available to figure it out? Result? No way, José. With all the security features of the DVD I can’t screen-record the captions to make a digitally-available video. The phone number at PBS for captioning services tells you up front that you won’t get a response from them. No other captions were forthcoming anywhere, not even a transcript of the dialogue.

I found a work-around and I can get the student what he or she needs. But at the end of the day I’ve been changed. First, I’m a little miffed at PBS for sucking at the online captioning thing. C’mon – the technology is readily available. Second, I’m determined to be more vocal about making sure that closed captioning is provided with web-based content, for everyone’s benefit.


10 thoughts on “The Right to Closed Captions for Everyone”

  1. While I understand that for those who use American Sign Language to communicate, captioning is considered a substitute. I’m not here to argue that fact, or to state there is a right or wrong way for someone else who is deaf to communicate. To do that would mean I would have to accept that others would be able to dictate how I communicate.

    It’s a fact, the majority of those who need to see speech in the U.S. (I am among them) do not know and use sign language at all. Therefore, captioning is an extension of my native language, English, as I am an oral deaf person who lipreads. Captioning enables me to see my native language when it’s not possible for me to hear it, so captioning is my language, and it’s the language of millions of other Americans.

    I really enjoyed your blog post, and I’m so happy to hear you are changed by this experience and will “be more vocal about making sure that closed captioning is provided with web-based content, for everyone’s benefit.”, as captioning makes it possible for those with a barrier to participate, contribute, and compete on the same level as everyone else. I’ve advocated for captioning with PBS before, and agree, PBS sucks big time at the online captioning thing. To hear that another voice has been added to the many who are already working on advocacy projects with PBS (to say thanks for what you do right, but it’s not good enough) is exciting. Many of us advocate on our own, but we also work as a group through CCAC (the Collaborative for Communication Access via Captioning). PBS is always coming up in our discussions.

    Thanks for your voice!

    1. Thanks for the comments. CC is good for everyone. Hopefully more online video providers like PBS can recognize that sooner rather than later.

  2. We need to gather more successful approach and support from the deaf and hard of hearing people to push the media to have better captions.

  3. In the ASL world yeah, lots of students are behind in reading. BUT not all deaf people use ASL. People who use Cued Speech are almost always VERY fast readers who LOVE captions.

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