Live Captioning Access at Public Events and Conferences

Two screens near stage - one showing captions and another showing slides

I have been attending various mainstream events and conferences (both free and paid) for many years as well as presenting at them and am very thankful for organizers who are willing to make their events accessible via live captioning or sign language interpreting or both (depending on type of an event) based on my consultation and recommendation. Sadly, I (like many other deaf and hard of hearing people) also face frustrations with the lack of communication access at many other events whose organizers don’t understand about importance of full and equal access for us.

There are common reactions that we often get from organizers after we ask them for communication access services at their events – especially for live captioning:

  • You can sit in front to hear or lipread better: Lipreading is not an exact science and gives only 20-30% of visual information and the rest is guesswork and depends on various factors. Hearing devices (while helping people hear better) do not cure hearing loss. Listening and lipreading is very exhausting for many deaf and hearing people and they need more visual access like captioning or sign language. So just sitting in front and trying to listen or lipread is not a full and equal accessibility solution for many of us.
  • We can provide you with presentation slides: Slides are not enough to make deaf people feel fully included – we still miss a lot of information not covered in slides as well as during speakers’ interactions with audience.
  • Bring your captioners (or interpreters): The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) mandates that event organizers provide communication access services to attendees – to enable them enjoy events on an equal footing with hearing attendees. Unlike hearing foreigners who choose to move to other countries and can learn local languages, people do not choose to be deaf and cannot understand (or have difficulties understanding) all aural information (even with the most advanced hearing devices). The maximum deaf people can do to adapt to hearing people is to have a good command of written languages (that’s why many of us find captioning very helpful). Therefore hearing foreigners are expected to bring their interpreters or learn the local language, but deaf and hard of hearing people deserve full and equal communication and information access to aural information in their own country.
  • We have hearing loops for you: Hearing loops help only those who use hearing aids or cochlear implants (and can understand speech by listening), but do not benefit all of them (including myself, a CI user). They are not as universal as live captioning that benefits not only many hearing device users but also many signing deaf people (who are bilingual in written and signed languages).
  • We offer sign language interpreters: Majority of deaf and hard of hearing people use spoken languages and don’t know or understand sign languages. So they cannot benefit from sign language interpreters. Also, not all sign languages are same worldwide. If I were to attend an event in UK, for example, I would not be able to understand BSL interpreters (even though I’m fluent in ASL) because BSL and ASL are totally different. Even some deaf people who are native or fluent signers may prefer same language captioning in certain situations.
  • We suggest you use speech recognition software: According to research, more than 3% of errors in text makes it hard to understand information. Speech recognition makes more errors than that (especially in real time) and cannot replace good quality human captioners who are trying to make less than 2% of errors. Machines cannot understand accents, identify speakers, describe sounds, add proper punctuation, and have issues with noisy backgrounds. Have you tried to turn off sound on YouTube videos and to turn on auto captions to realize how bad they are?
  • We are a small organization and do not have a budget for accessibility (or we are volunteers and the event is free): There is no excuse not to make events accessible – even if they are free. Since many events have sponsors who pay for expenses on things like venue rental, food, lanyards, bags, freebies, and so on, they can ask them to pay for accessibility (which is a basic necessity for attendees with disabilities to feel included and needs to be incorporated in all events).
  • Do you know of any cheap or free captioners/interpreters: Good quality communication access is important and not free – it’s part of a daily job of captioners and interpreters. Cheap communication access does not solve accessibility issues – on contrary, it causes frustrations to many deaf and hard of hearing attendees. Poor quality is not better than no access. We have had enough of share of bad communication access providers. Have you heard about the fake interpreter in South Africa at Mandela’s funeral? People volunteering to type or knowing basic sign language are not qualified providers – especially for formal events.
  • Nobody asks for captioning access (or any type of communication access services): It’s the most common reaction I get from event organizers when I suggest them to project live captioning for the whole audience. Since hearing loss is very stigmatized, many people having it would not ask for access services or even know about live captioning or their rights to full and equal communication access. Also, captioning is universal access benefiting more people than just those who cannot hear (foreigners, for example).

Since captioning is universal access for many audience members, I suggest event organizers to provide live captioning at public events as a default access for the general audience and to mention this in announcements in addition to noting that other communication access services can be arranged upon request. Live captioning can be provided on site or remotely (there are pros and cons for both options).

Event organizers are part of Audio Accessibility’s client list – contact us for consulting and training for the following:

  • explaining to you in detail about different types of captioning services and how it works in different settings,
  • referring you to captioners (and interpreters if needed) you plan to hire that are of good quality, and
  • guiding you through all steps of your event planning (and post-event recordings if needed) to ensure that communication access services go smoothly.