Sign Language Is NOT a Substitute to Captioning

This past weekend the blizzard hit the east coast of USA, so there were emergency announcements by mayors of cities and governors of states impacted by the blizzard. They are usually captioned on TV for millions of deaf and hard of hearing people. Lately, sign language interpreters have been included in emergency announcements. It may seem like an improvement in terms of communication access, but not this past weekend. It looked like sign language substituted captioning on several occasions.

First I came across an online video by CBS Baltimore with an emergency announcement in Maryland. It was not captioned, but had a deaf person signing (click the image to view a video clip):

Video clip of an emergency announcement in Baltimore that was not captioned

Majority of people with hearing loss don’t use or understand sign language (statistics provided in the end of this post), so they would be left out if no captions are provided. Even if the announcement might have been captioned on TV, online streaming videos should be captioned as well – not everyone has TV and many may prefer to watch news online. Also, FCC mandates captioning of internet video programming.

After seeing captioned emergency announcements by Mayor Blasio on ABC7NY News Saturday afternoon and evening (but no sign language interpreter present), of all sudden captions didn’t show up during a new announcement by the mayor Sunday morning after the storm, but that time a deaf people signing was on the TV:

Clip of ABC7NY not showing captions for a post storm announcement by Mayor Blasio

At first it seemed like TV set had problems with captioning settings, but as I checked other channels, they had captioning running as usual. Then I came across Arlene Romoff’s post that she had that same problem on NBC Channel 4.

So I was not alone when noticing the lack of captioning on TV when a deaf person signing was present. Even if you know sign language, the signer’s hands were not clear enough to be understood because they were not in a full camera view and somewhat blocked.

Last night after having watched the X-Files (that was captioned), I somehow landed on Verizon Fios 1 News Low Hudson channel that was also captioned for a while then a few minutes later I saw the mayor making a post-storm announcement with that same signing deaf person. Out of sudden, captioning stopped. After the announcement was done, captioning reappeared again as shown in the video clip below (click the image to view the clip):

Video clip of Verizon Fios not showing captioning on TV

This made me wonder if those TV stations turned off captioning on purpose assuming that “all” deaf and hard of hearing people know sign language and that since sign language is provided no captioning is needed? If it is the case, they need to be aware that majority of deaf and hard of hearing people DON’T know sign language and would be left out if captioning access is not provided.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, 48 millions of people in USA above age 12 (or about 1/5 of total population) report some degree of hearing loss. Majority of those people are hard of hearing, late deafened adults, individuals with progressive hearing loss and oral deaf people who use spoken languages and don’t use sign language. Over 90% of people with hearing loss are from hearing families. So they rely on captioning to access aural information.

Gallaudet research states that there are about 500,000 to 2 million of people in USA and Canada who use sign language. If you use their data, 2 million of people (maximum stated by Gallaudet) using sign language would make about 2% of total around 50 million of deaf and hard of hearing people (the total number may be higher if including children below age 12).

Sign language is important for emergency announcements, but it does NOT substitute captioning access for a wider audience who don’t understand sign language. Sign language is accessible only to 2% of those who use it and 98% are left out if captioning is not provided. I hope TV stations and any information providers (media producers and event organizers) take a note on this and make sure all of their aural information is fully accessible via quality human-made captions.