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Accessibility for Deaf People – Beyond Video Captions and Sign Language

Text: Accessibility for deaf people - beyond video captions and sign language - by Svetlana Kouznetsova (Sveta). Background: A left part of a female head with blond hair and a left ear.

Presentation Summary: The majority of deaf and hard of hearing people don’t know sign language and not everyone can lipread or benefit from hearing devices. The speaker is an experienced consultant who is deaf and will help you better understand that not all deaf and hard of hearing people are the same and learn more about various hearing and communication abilities and preferences in various situations.

(Note: It’s the title for a presentation that I give at some events. I’m sharing photos of slides and text of my presentation below. The presentation is customized depending on a length, audience, and current news. Does your organization want me to give a talk? Reach out to me via the online contact form.)

Text Transcript with Slide Images

Title: Accessibility for Deaf People: Beyond Video Captions and Sign Language by Svetlana Kouznetsova
Background: A left side of a female head with long blond hair and an ear.

Hi everyone! Thanks for tuning in. I’m an independent consultant living in the New York City area. I’m excited to talk about accessibility for deaf people.

Deafness is an invisible disability. You may not be able to tell that I’m deaf unless you see me wearing a cochlear implant on my head or communicating in sign language or you thought I’m ignoring you when you’re saying “Excuse me!” repeatedly. I’m not ignoring you on purpose, of course! :0)

A word "hearing impaired" slashed by a X mark.

I want to mention that the word “hearing impaired” is no longer preferred by many deaf people and local, national, and international organizations of deaf and hard of hearing people. It was coined by the medical community looking on deafness from a pathological perspective. The term “deaf and hard of hearing people” is best used to describe them as a group and it’s a good idea to ask people individually how they prefer to be identified. For simplicity sake, I will use the word deaf people throughout my presentation to describe people with all kinds of hearing losses.

Text: USA Total - 48 million, World Total - 466 million. Below are icons of humans lined up in arrow.

Deaf people represent a pretty big number. In the United States alone, we make up over 48 million people. Worldwide, we comprise over 466 million people. ​There are so many misconceptions about deafness​ that I cannot cover them all. So I will share a few examples.

When people​ think about deafness, the image often comes up as a senior citizen using a hearing aid. But look at me. I’m deaf and I’m not that old. :0) I grew up wearing hearing aids and now I have a cochlear implant. Actually, more and more young people are going to doctor’s offices, because they’ve lost some hearing – mostly from exposure to loud noises. They’re listening to music with earbuds on high volume, or going to loud concerts.

Continuous exposure to loud noises is the number one cause of hearing loss. Age is number two, and number three is disease or accident. That’s what happened to me. I was born with normal hearing to parents who can hear. No one in my family had a history of deafness or any disability. When I was two years old, I got sick with meningitis and it was pretty bad enough to cause me to become profoundly deaf. I’m also one of 90-95% of deaf people who come from hearing families. Many deaf people have hearing kids, as well. So genetic deafness is very rare.

Many people​ think all deaf people know sign language. The vast majority of them don’t know sign language. They use primarily spoken languages. Most of them are hard of hearing, individuals with progressive hearing loss, late-deafened adults, and deaf people who had an intensive speech therapy at a very young age – like me. I didn’t use sign language when growing up. I learned American Sign Language, my fifth language, as an adult by mingling with people who are native or fluent signers. ​If I didn’t have that opportunity, I would not have become a fluent signer or even know any sign language by now. Like with any language, you need immersion. Many deaf people don’t have this. ​

Also, sign languages are not the same in every country. American Sign Language is completely different from British Sign Language, for example, and their difference is more pronounced than the difference between American and British English.

If deaf people can communicate well orally, it doesn’t mean that they can understand everything and everyone, even with hearing aids and implants. They don’t cure deafness. Hearing doesn’t equal to understanding. For example, you may see Chinese characters clearly, but you can’t understand what they mean. Same with hearing devices. Some people like myself can recognize only environmental sounds while others can understand speech but not 100%.

Many people​ assume that we can lipread. Lipreading is not magic. You can only see about 30 percent of the words on someone’s mouth and there are many other factors that influence that as well. That’s why many of us need additional visual access to aural information such as sign language, cued speech, or captioning.

If you want to communicate with a deaf person, it’s best to ask by writing down: “How do you prefer me to communicate with you?” Please do not ask us how much we can hear or if we can speak or lipread you. You are making us to accommodate you when it should be the other way around. If you don’t have patience, deaf people may bluff, and communication would fall apart.

Depending on our needs, you may need to speak slower or move to a quieter place or write or type back and forth. If you know some sign language and the person is a native or fluent signer, don’t be afraid to use it. It shows that you are making an effort. When a deaf person participates in a group conversation, it’s really important to include them. Don’t say words like: “Never mind”, “It wasn’t important”, or “I’ll tell you later”.

Deafness is not a black and white issue. It’s not either you can hear or not. Deafness really ranges along a continuum from mild to moderate to profound hearing loss. People have a variety of communication needs and abilities. I cover that in detail in my workshops on deaf awareness.

Text: websites. Background: A left side of a female head with blond hair and a left ear.

Now, I want to talk about websites.​ When people think about accessibility on websites for deaf and hard of hearing people, they think “video captioning.” That is one of the issues. But I also want to mention another issue that many people don’t know about.

Online forms showing fields for name, email, phone, comments, all with asterisks (except for comments) and a submit button. The phone field is circled.

Online forms as you see listed here. You’re thinking, what’s wrong with that? There’s a phone number field and it’s requiring me to fill it out. Obviously we can’t hear on the phone. Some people can speak on the phone, but they may have a hard time hearing you.

There are different types of relay services in the USA that allow us to communicate with people on the phone through a third-party operator which is great but there are some drawbacks. Many of us prefer to communicate directly through email, text, instant messaging, online chats, and video calls. Because it’s 2019! Pretty much everybody is texting and using online chat.

Smartphone icon with 2019 on it and circled by 4 icons for phone, video, email, text.

The internet and smartphones equalized communication between deaf and hearing people. Many of us can communicate with each other via text or video. Smartphones are based on universal design, they benefit everyone.

It’s not only us deaf people who benefit from texting. More hearing people are preferring to use text instead of phone calls, especially millennials. One piece of research stated that if the phone number was required, the less people would be willing to fill out online forms. So if you leave the phone field as optional, the number of people signing up would increase and your business would improve the conversion rate.

So I advise you to offer more options for your customers to contact you such as via email, texting, instant messaging, online chats, and video calls. Please don’t limit yourself and your customers to contact you via phone only. Also, consider hiring deaf people for call center positions so that deaf customers who use sign language can communicate with them directly via video.

Text: events. Background: A left side of a female head with blond hair and a left ear.

Now I want to talk about how to approach different events.​ When I’m talking about events, that can be any type of opportunity to engage with deaf people. It could be a one-on-one conversation, a group conversation, a classroom, a business meeting setting, a small event, or a large-scale event.

While I enjoy attending events that are accessible to me, there are many others that are not, including diversity and inclusion events! That’s frustrating.

For example, here is a message I received from an event organizer after I made a request for interpreters: “We are committed to making our events as accessible to as many members as possible. However, this event is just a networking mixer and will not have a formal presentation. I do not foresee a need for interpreters at this particular event. I do hope that you can join us.”

Text showing the same info as in the previous paragraph.

Sadly, that happens very often. We face a lot of resistance from event organizers. The organizer mentioned in the example said it’s just an informal event, but it is business networking event, which is different than a gathering of family and friends. I could communicate via typing on my phone, but it’s not as effective as having communication through a sign language interpreter. I also wanted to mention that when I got this response, it came from a president of a local organization who is female! We’re both women. I was disappointed that she dismissed me and my needs as a woman who is deaf. It’s not for her to decide if I need interpreters or not.

People with disabilities make up the largest minority group, but unfortunately they are the most often overlooked. They are often excluded from diversity and inclusion issues. It’s not enough for us to just be accepted – we need our accommodations to be met in order to be on an equal footing with others.

I often receive comments from people saying, “Hey, you’re the first deaf person who’s ever asked for communication access, I’ve never had this before.”

I want to mention that for many people deafness carries a tremendous stigma. Many people don’t want to disclose their hearing loss and are often in a state of denial about it, especially those who become deaf as adults. So, to ask for communication needs, a person with hearing loss will perceive that as a bad thing or make them feel that they are weak or stupid. They will not ask for accessibility and will just try to fit in as much as possible. Trust me, many of you may have already met a deaf or hard of hearing person but haven’t realized it, because deafness is an invisible disability. There are also many people, regardless of the cause of their deafness or communication preferences, who are not aware of their rights or are afraid of speaking up or just tired of fighting for access.

There are many various types of access services including but not limited to: live captioning, sign language interpreting services, oral interpreting services, cued speech transliteration. Assistive listening devices are typically used by people who benefit from hearing aids and cochlear implants. Preferential seating might be requested.

I personally prefer live captioning when listening to a speaker and ASL interpreting for social interactions, for example. You might be wondering why I’m not using my own voice for my presentations. I can use my voice, but not everyone is able to understand my speech. I have a Russian accent and a deaf quality to my speech. I found that it’s more effective for me to type my online presentations or to have sign language interpreters voice my onsite presentations.

Icons of a human standing by the screen in front of an audience.

So that’s some basic information about communication access. That is something that I go in more depth in my consulting services that I have provided to businesses for over 10 years in web, media, and event accessibility. I also have over 20 years of experience working with sign language interpreters, captioners, and various access service providers. ​Some are good and some are not good.

When working with interpreters and captioners, it is important that they not only provide high quality services but also show sensitivity and respect to deaf people by following their ​code of professional conduct​ – or ​code of ethics​. As per the ​code of ethics​, access providers are refrained from offering advice, interjecting personal opinions, getting undue attention, and stepping out of their roles as access providers – among many other things. That brings about accountability, responsibility, and trust to deaf people.

Unfortunately, not all access providers follow the ​code of ethics​. It’s been a very sensitive topic in the deaf community. Event accessibility is not about focusing on providers or giving them undue attention, but ensuring that the needs of deaf people are met. It’s important that deaf people feel comfortable attending events or working with providers, but sadly they don’t always have a voice in access services that are often determined by hearing people without consultation with deaf people.

The hard work of good interpreters and captioners at events is always appreciated. However, when event organizers and attendees praise access providers or treat captions and sign language as a cool thing instead of as an important access service for deaf people, it makes our needs and experiences less important.

It’s a large and complicated topic that is out of the scope of this presentation, but it’s a very important issue not to be taken lightly. It’s also something that event organizers may want to consider adding to their event code of conduct. If you want to better understand about the ​code of ethics​ feel free to ask me afterwards. There will be a link to an article at the end of my presentation.

Text: media. Background: A left side of a female head with blond hair and a left ear.

Now I want to talk about media accessibility.​ Many of you know that it’s captions and transcripts.

Microphone icon with text saying: audio = transcript.

Podcasts can be made accessible via transcripts. They have to be done in verbatim and to include every word that the person said plus speaker identifications and sound descriptions. Colorful language cannot be censored in text if you hear it loud and clear in audio. We are not little kids and there are deaf people who swear like sailors!

A film slate board icon with text saying: video = captions  + transcript.

The video needs to have both captions and a transcript. You cannot choose one or another. If you’re posting the video with the transcript but you don’t include captions, it’s very difficult for us to manage our eye gaze up and down from the video image to the transcript. It’s not a good experience. If you’re providing just captions for the video, that means that deaf people who are blind can’t see captions. A video transcript is different from a podcast transcript and includes descriptions of important visual elements in the video. Many people can benefit from video transcripts. If you don’t want to go through the whole video, you can skim through the transcript.

Text: auto captions - with a X slash icon over it.

Don’t just turn on auto captions – it’s a really bad idea. My TEDx talk explains why. While speech technologies – or automated speech recognition (ASR) – may be okay and even useful in social settings, they are not suitable for professional content. ​Two international organizations of deaf and hard of hearing people​ also made a joint statement that it’s still premature to replace human captioners with ASR and more research and development is needed with participation of deaf and hard of hearing people.

Low quality captions are not better than no captions. Many deaf people call them craptions. Bad captions are not better than nothing because they cause cognitive dissonance for us deaf people in the same way bad audio makes you feel frustrated.

Make sure to add captions to videos on all platforms. If you’re giving a presentation, and your slides are going to include videos, make sure that those videos also include captions that are prepared in advance. Even though you might have a live captioner provided during your presentation, you still need to have captions for videos in your slides.

Live captions and video captions are not the same.​ They follow different sets of quality guidelines and done by different captioners. Live captions are meant to be used in real time for events, webinars, news broadcasts. Offline video captions are used for movies, video recordings, and post-production media in general.

I’m sharing some basic examples of the difference between live captions and video captions.

Good quality live captions​ are expected to have a minimum of 98% accuracy. If you see some mistakes here and there it’s expected. Live captions can be delayed for a few seconds and usually scroll up. Like you see on the slide.

A video clip with live captions. Text saying: Real-time (live) captions: 98% accuracy minimum, some delay, scroll  up.

Good quality video captions​, on the other hand, are expected to have 100% accuracy rate and cannot have errors. They need to be synchronized with speech. They pop up and are chunked in one or two short lines with logical grammatical breaks. Like you see in the slide.

A video clip with post-production captions. Text says: Offline (post-production) captions: 100% accuracy, no delay, pop up.

I know it’s tempting to record live captions so that you don’t need to edit or to pay for video captions, but it’s not the best practice, especially for professional content. ​Also when live captions are chunked randomly instead of scrolling up in addition to being delayed, they are hard to read and process. It’s like listening to speech with random intonations and pauses. ​So you cannot hire the same person for both types of captioning access. There is a different skill set for each type of captions. Live captions from an event needs to be cleaned up and properly edited for event video recordings by a captioner that specializes in post-production captions.

If you share videos and podcasts online, please make sure to add captions and transcripts first before sharing and don’t leave out deaf people or make them wait for access. It happens quite often, even with videos and podcasts about accessibility by non-disabled accessibility advocates! Honestly, it saddens me that of all people, they would leave us out, intentionally or not. There’s a saying in the disability community: “Nothing about us without us.”

There are more examples of captioning quality guidelines and best practices. Captioning access is a large topic that I can talk about forever and it’s part of my consulting services. I just wanted to give you some basic idea of why quality speech to text access is important and how live real time captions and offline video captions are different.

There are 2 ways to make captions and transcripts – by doing it yourself or by outsourcing services depending on whether the content is personal or professional.

You can create video captions and transcripts yourself for your personal content if you cannot afford professional services. There are many great tools and apps that allow you to do this such as YouTube or Cliptomatic.

Crowdsourcing is not recommended for professional content. Captioning is an art that can be done well only by specialists who have a lot of experience and training to create high quality captions and transcripts that are easy to read and understand. Low prices do not guarantee high quality. There are many captioners who do not follow quality standards. ​When looking for vendors, ask them for samples of their past work. Testimonials are not always reliable because they are often written by clients who do not know quality standards or have a deaf perspective​. I can advise you on how to ensure good captions for your media and events.

Text: Captioning is an art that can be done well only by experienced professionals.

Now I wanted to end my presentation by using my motto: Let’s think outside the ears!

Text: Let's think outside the ears! Background: A left part of a female head with blond hair and a left ear.

You’re familiar with the common expression: “Think outside the box.” We live in a very audio-centered world. Many people don’t realize that communication and information sharing doesn’t only have to come through one way – hearing and speech. There are many different ways to communicate and access information. I would encourage all of you to think about how you can make your web, media, events friendly for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

If you are interested in learning more about deafness awareness and accessibility solutions, feel free to reach out to me for consulting, training sessions, workshops. You can check my TEDx talk about captioning access. I am also working on a second edition of my book on that topic. Let me know if you want to be notified once the new book is out.

Here are links to my website, my TEDx talk, and an article about code of ethics. Feel free to contact me via email if you have any questions.

Thank you all for joining me!

Text: Thank you! With 3 links mentioned in the past paragraph. Background: A left part of a female head with blond hair and a left ear.
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