I’m really glad the New York Times is paying notice to the issue of captioning on new and digital technologies (“On Web Video, Captions Are Coming Slowly”, June 21.) What a hassle and annoyance (and frankly, somewhat of a civil rights violation, in my opinion) this has been for the deaf and hearing-impaired community. We are now just starting to celebrate the rise of closed-captions on most network and cable TV shows, only to have the technology flip on us. With Web-based TV and movies, captions are not readily available. For movies, our only option is to either rent a foreign film that has English subtitles burned onto it, or hope that the network or movie studio is magnanimous enough to have included captions.
It’s happening slowly. The New York Times article centers on Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who has spoken up on the lack of captions on sites like CNN.com and services like Netflix. When Matlin, who performed on Dancing With the Stars last year, went to ABC.com to watch a replay of the show, she was impeded because the network’s videos were missing captions.
Similar stories happen all over the world to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, including me. Last week, I was on a plane heading home from San Francisco. The passenger movie, Invictus, didn’t have captions. Since I’m in business class, I’m offered a small personal entertainment device to watch even more movies -– none with captions. Luckily I have an iPad, and the airline offers in-flight Internet for a fee, which I pay. I know that any movie I stream from Netflix won’t have captions, so I opt for Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, which is in Italian (so I know there will be English subtitles burned onto the film.) I’m watching a black and white movie from 1963, while my husband has his choice of any of this year’s blockbusters. How backwards is that?
One aspect of captions is totally unrelated to the Web, and is a critical issue that also needs attention. Blu Ray DVD players are currently unable to able to transmit captions to the TV display. Over the weekend, when I popped a Coco Chanel DVD into my Blu Ray PS3, I knew the captions would not work. However, I expected the studio –- Lux Vide of Italy — to include English subtitles. To save money on production costs, it did not. My husband and I ate the cost of the Netflix movie.
In any case, there are some media companies making good efforts, including Google’s YouTube, the world’s biggest video website. Captions on videos are pieced together via Google’s voice-recognition technology. It’s more of an ad hoc transcription – so it’s not perfect. But the service helps deaf people immensely. Hulu.com provides captions for some programming, and ABC also now applies the TV captions for Dancing With the Stars.
But “big gaps remain.” Which brings me to the need for H.R. 3101. Advocates are pushing Congress to pass H.R. 3101, a bill that would mandate captions on any online video that has also appeared on TV, like prime-time comedies and dramas. H.R. 3101 includes provisions to make video programming user interfaces accessible for people who are blind or who have low vision.
Though not covered under the bill, movie-subscription providers like Netflix should be working faster to make captions available for its products as the iPhone and iPad become the de facto way for people to watch movies. Netflix said in April it would make some changes, but that it would take time.
Here’s the call to action. Sign the petition for H.R. 3101. Contact your representative and tell them that you would like him or her to support H.R. 3101. (There’s also a Senate version of the bill, S.S. 3304). And go to Caption Action 2 and CoatAccess.org to read updates about the bill and what else you can do to help. This community needs your vocal support (and I’m running out of Fellini movies).