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Why Subtitles Are Not Accessible to Me as a Deaf Person

An Amazon Prime page for the Ekaterina TV series. It shows available languages - audio in Russian and subtitles in English.

Captions and subtitles are not the same thing. The difference is more pronounced in the USA and some other countries.

Basically, captions are speech to text access in the same language to deaf people with additional accessibility elements while subtitles are translations from one spoken language to a written language native to hearing viewers and not fully accessible to deaf people.

I would like to share the example of Ekaterina, the Russian TV series. I enjoyed watching them, especially that I’m also a history buff. The series are about a daughter of a Prussian prince who married a grandson of Peter the Great. She changed her name to Ekaterina and mastered Russian as a foreign language.

While I’m glad the series has English subtitles, they were made primarily for hearing native or fluent English speakers who don’t know Russian. I wish it also had an option for the same language captions in Russian. Sadly, they are not available for deaf native Russian speakers like me. The series were made in Russia in spoken Russian. It was causing a cognitive dissonance for my brain to read words in English and to lipread in Russian at the same time. Imagine hearing the original Russian and dubbed English at the same time.

If I didn’t know Russian, English subtitles would not been an issue for me. Also, English subtitles don’t have speaker IDs or sound descriptions, so English subtitles are not fully accessible to deaf people. They are meant to provide access primarily to non-Russian speakers who can hear.

The same goes to any content in other original languages that I’m fluent in. I prefer to watch original content in English with the same language captions in English – even though Russian is my native language. I’ve seen some content in English on Russian speaking platforms with Russian subtitles. It also causes me a cognitive dissonance when lipreading in English and reading subtitles in Russian because it often makes me wonder what’s said in the original language.

The most recent example is really interesting – a French TV series I watched that happen to be dubbed in Russian and have subtitles in English. I know basic French so I could lipread some words said by actors, but not fluent enough to get the level of cognitive dissonance that I have when I watch Russian movies with English subtitles or American/British movies with Russian subtitles. I also cannot hear dubbed Russian. Despite having a cochlear implant, I have little to no speech discrimination by hearing only, regardless of what language I hear in.

So I could easily focus on subtitles in English throughout the whole series. But it’s not fully accessible to me. It lacks speaker IDs, sound descriptions, etc. Sometimes TV ads blocked subtitles – several times during an episode and for as long as 30 seconds which felt like an eternity! So I missed some important conversations and had to have a companion fill me in.

Imagine if you were fluent in all 3 languages and could hear dubbed Russian, lipread everything in French, and read subtitles in English. It would be quite a cognitive load! 

So I prefer to hear, lipread, and read captions in the same language. I prefer to access the original content whenever possible if I happen to know the original language. When I read subtitles, not only it gives me cognitive dissonance but also gives me a different feeling that may be lost in translation. Translation to another language may not accurately describe the feeling in the original language.

I wish all producers of audiovisual content added captions and transcriptions in the original language first to make it fully accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people. If needed, translations in other languages can be also added after that – preferably not subtitles but translated captions with additional accessibility elements. That way non-native speakers who are deaf had full access to all aural content including not just dialogues but also non-speech elements.

Want to talk with me more about captions and subtitles? Feel free to contact me via the online form. Looking forward to hearing from you!

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