Adjust text size:

Captions Need a Push in Congress

June 21 2010 | by

closed caption icon

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 and services like Netflix. When Matlin, who performed on Dancing With the Stars last year, went to 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. 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 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).


  • NotAPundit

    A mandate won’t speed the adoption of closed captions online as much as it will reduce the choices for online video viewing.

    Many of us watch old movies and television shows that predate closed captioning (which has only been in wide use since 1996). If captions were mandated for online video, these would not be coming online in droves — many if not most would be pulled from Hulu, Netflix, etc. in order to avoid the cost of captioning, or to remain in compliance while they sit in the large backlog of media to be captioned.

    As you have pointed out, Youtube, Hulu, and others are already moving toward increased closed captioning. Market force is increasing caption availability without artificially limiting available content.

    However, there is a massive backlog of media to be captioned — media from non-tv sources (which this bill does not address anyway), and media that pre-dates closed captioning technology top the list. No one has the infrastructure to caption 50 years of media as fast as you want it done. They’re already doing it as fast as existing infrastructure allows, so the *only* recourse in the event of a mandate is to pull uncaptioned content off the internet.

    If you really want captioning to happen faster, do something about it, instead of sitting around demanding that someone else do something about it (which is exactly what this bill does).

    Help develop technologies that reduce the cost and time to caption video content (if you actually want to pitch in here, drop me an email and I’ll hook you up with someone doing work in this area).

    Help develop technologies that allow for direct copy of captions from the set made for TV to the set made for online viewing. My understanding is that such technology exists, but is still new and rough, requiring human intervention in order to accurately match timing with the video content.

    Create a PGDP-like collaborative system for closed captions, reducing the labor cost of correcting captions.

    Closed captioning in online video hasn’t lagged because the mean mean media execs have decided that they like deaf people less than they like hearing people. There are real logistical barriers here that need to be addressed. People inside and outside the movie industry are working on it — but it takes time. Things should speed up considerably once the standard for online captions is released; it’s already in the works, and when finished will reduce the cost to produce and maintain the systems I mentioned.

    The effect of supporting a mandate is saying “my viewing format isn’t available yet, so NO ONE should be allowed to watch these movies”. We all have our own issues to deal with. I don’t demand that others stop eating foods I’m allergic to because I can’t have them. Nor should the you try to take content away from others because you can’t enjoy it yet, especially when you don’t seem willing to pony up your time and money to make it happen, instead insisting that others do so, and on your timeline, OR ELSE.

  • NotAPundit

    opencongress.orgCorrection: it turns out that specifically exempts programming produced prior to the mandate for closed captioning went into effect.

  • deaf

    To be honest, Google’s “auto” caps do not make sense and are worse than no captions – they do not really provide an “equal” access. Videos should have good quality captions with at least 98% accuracy. The captions can be easily done for YouTube videos by uploading transcripts and using the “auto” timing feature to syncronize with audio. It would take less time than fixing the garbled “auto” caps.

    Machines cannot think on the level that humans do.

  • deaf

    “YouTube Captioning Issue”

    - “I was dissapointed. I tested out a music video that had the lyrics, either in the song or on the side of the page. It wasn’t accurate at all. It was frustrating and confusing. I tried about 10 different type of videos. I hope they fix it. I heard many people arent happy with the captioning on youtube. I heard it’s an Automatic Transcription.”

    - “There are too many words that sound the same and some words that are indecipherable to allow automatic transcriptioning to work by itself. Like medical transcriptioning, a LIVE person is needed to edit and make the script accurate. ”

    - “There is no reason you should not have access to ACCURATE captioning. Steno-captioners have the skill to caption anything, including YouTube videos, in realtime with over 98% accuracy.

    Keep complaining to Google and YouTube. Speech-recognition software is an inferior product to steno-captioning!”

Related posts:

  1. Do Movies Deserve Captions?
  2. Bill Seeks TV and Movie Captions for the Deaf
  3. Captions for YouTube – A great benefit for the deaf
  4. Google Adds Automatic Captions to YouTube
  5. iPhone App Delivers Movie Captions On the Go