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Comparing Captions and Subtitles Is Like Comparing Apples and Oranges

Many people often use words “captions” and “subtitles” interchangeably without realizing the difference between the two. 

Captions are designed as speech to text access for deaf people while subtitles are designed as foreign language translation for hearing people.

My article explains in detail why subtitles are not accessible to me as a deaf person.

Therefore, the words “captions” and “subtitles” are not interchangeable, especially in the USA and some other countries. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Subtitles and captions may be just some text but their purposes vary.

Subtitles are not deaf friendly.

It’s like saying a building is wheelchair user friendly because it has elevators, but in fact it is not due to the lack of a ramp at the entrance. Even elevators are not always disability friendly. They may be too narrow for a wheelchair or lack Braille print on buttons for blind people, for example.

Like elevators that are not designed with wheelchair users in mind, subtitles have never been designed with deaf people in mind. Subtitles came into the picture for hearing people who wanted to watch foreign movies but could not understand the original language. 

You may argue that it’s not a big deal as long as there is text of some sort. By saying this, you are dismissing our frustrations with the systemic oppression, ableism, and audism. 

Subtitles have been around for longer than captions. They became popular because they are cheaper than dubbing. Subtitles were designed for hearing people, not deaf people. We have been fighting for captioning access for decades. It’s really frustrating. I grew up not having access to TV and movies. I have often been told to check out foreign movies with subtitles. Why should I limit myself to foreign movies? Not all of them are even subtitled as some are dubbed. 

Based on my personal experience, the needs of hearing people are often prioritized over the needs of deaf people.

The need for foreign language translation is usually not questioned. Subtitles are optional not required. Yet when it comes to speech to text access for deaf people, an accessibility requirement, hearing people often treat captions as the nice to have thing, question our rights to full and equal access, and even complain how captions “distract” them. To say nothing about hearing people constantly telling us that auto captions are good enough for us.

That’s why I never use words “captions” and “subtitles” interchangeably.

When talking about my TEDx talk video, for example, I say that it has captions in English and subtitles in other languages – to emphasize the difference. I explain this further in my book and consulting work.

If you want to improve experiences for deaf people, please make your audiovisual content accessible via accurate and properly formatted captions first before adding subtitles (if translation is needed, also add accessibility elements). Importantly, please start differentiating the two. 

If your business needs detailed consulting and training on optimizing accessibility of your media and events, contact us.

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