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Providing Access via Captions and Transcripts – “I Can’t” or “I Won’t”?

Notebooks with handwritten notes on floor. A pen, a cassette, and a tape recorder are on them.

The photo above shows a stack of notebooks with handwritten notes, a pen, a cassette tape, and a tape recorder. Yes, the things from the 20th century. Why am I sharing this photo?

I spent most of my secondary education in regular schools where I was the only deaf person and did not have any formal access services. I had to handle an average of 12-15 subjects every week. That’s how rigorous Russian secondary education was during my time.

Hearing aids provided no benefit to me. Lipreading gives only partial visual access. So I missed a lot in classes and learned mostly from books. It was long before the Internet. It was very challenging for me, to say the least.

There were 2 subjects in school that were the most difficult for me.

One subject was literature and based on discussions that I could not participate in. Just reading books was not enough. Many books required by schools may sound too advanced for inexperienced teenagers. Yes, they were. That’s why teachers had to explain those books to us.

Another subject was art history and newly added to the school curriculum. It had no textbook. All information came from lectures. I had no way to understand them. It was impossible to get such information in a local library. Let me remind you that there was no internet back then.

What was the solution? My mother suggested that I tape record those two subjects and she transcribes them. I did not even think of asking her for this. My family had already done a lot to help me at home with different subjects. So I didn’t feel comfortable to ask them for more. After my mom talked to my teachers, they gave me permission to tape record their classes. I was fortunate that my teachers were understanding of my need to access their content.

My mother listened to tape cassettes and made handwritten verbatim notes. Yes, handwritten. Her tools were very basic – paper and pen. Like you see on the photo above. She transcribed an average of 5-7 hours a week content of those classes. Every week for 2 years. On top of this, my mom managed to hand in notes to me within a very short time. Computers were not common. There were no smartphones or speech to text technologies. Let me reiterate that there was no internet back then.

My mother was not paid by school for her hard work. Schools that I attended were not mandated by the disability laws in Russia. Many deaf kids in my time were not even encouraged to attend regular schools, to say nothing about getting access services. There was no captioning access on Russian TV until around the mid-90s, and even now it’s still scarce.

Just because I did well in school and could “overcome barriers” by society, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t need access services. If they were offered by school, I would have used them. While I’m proud of my accomplishments, I shouldn’t have worked many times harder than my hearing peers. I deserved to be on equal footing with them in accessing information in classes.

I’m grateful not only to my family, but also to teachers who helped me during their office hours. They had no special training in working with deaf kids. I was their first deaf student. While their schools had no accessibility requirements, they tried their best to ensure that I could get as much access to education as possible. They periodically discussed my abilities and needs with my family and me and asked us for feedback. It seemed like a good common sense.

Now with all those laws mandating educational institutions in the USA to be accessible, I am disappointed to hear complaints from many deaf students and their parents that their schools refuse to accommodate them and to make their online videos and audio files accessible. NAD had to sue MIT and Harvard for the lack of proper captions for their online media, for example.

We are still fighting for captioning access and accessibility in general not just in educational institutions, but everywhere. Despite the fact that the ADA – the Americans with Disabilities Act – has been around for 30 years now.

When we ask hearing people to make their videos and podcasts accessible via captions and transcriptions, the first response we often get is: “I can’t.” I understand that many people don’t know how to do it. However, when we hear “I can’t” we interpret this as “I won’t.” What we would like to hear instead is: “Sure! I’d love to! How to do it?”  

Gone are the days of tape cassettes and handwriting. While advancements in technologies made it easier to transcribe content, many people still do not make their content accessible. When they do, they often just turn on an auto transcribing feature and think it’s a great accessibility solution. It’s really frustrating. 

As the video explains, auto captions and ASR are not the best accessibility practice – especially for professional content. Bad captions are not better than nothing. When hearing people complain about bad audio, it’s fixed right away. Yet when we complain about bad captions, we are told it’s better than nothing. No, it’s not. This needs to stop. Good captions and transcripts are as important as good audio.

Does your organization want to be deaf-friendly and to stand out from competition?

For professional content, consider using professional services. Captioning is more than just adding text – it’s an art that is best done by experts who are well familiar with best practices and do it on a regular basis.

If you want to make your personal content accessible, you can type text or clean up auto transcription. There are many apps out there to choose from. They can help you make your transcribing process easier and faster. I (like many other deaf people) need to spend more time to manually transcribe from scratch because ASR does not always understand my speech and cannot auto translate my signed message into text. I make efforts to make my content accessible to you – deaf or not – and for myself, too. I cannot lipread everything I say in videos and need captions, haha. So I hope you make efforts to make your content accessible to us deaf people, too.

There’s this expression: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” 

If you have more questions or need consulting services, feel free to contact me. I look forward to hearing from you.

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