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deaf community petitions for free captions

Shari Eberts starts a petition for free captions
Video captioning is a great way to stay in contact with friends, family and colleagues during times of social distancing, but for people with hearing loss, the technology isn’t as accessible as it may seem.

Many people with hearing loss rely on live captioning when they watch TV or audio streaming. Some video conferencing platforms have caption technology, but it’s not readily available.

A petition for free captions hopes to change that.

Why Video Captioning is Important  

Shari Eberts, a hearing health advocate and writer who has a progressive hearing loss, started the petition for free captions after experiencing video conferencing challenges.

She couldn’t always fully understand what was being said when participating in Zoom and Google Meet calls for work. She’s also in a book club with several friends who also have hearing loss. They found that without captioning, they weren’t able to have an enjoyable conversation.

“We were lucky that one member of the group had a family member with a paid G-Suite business account that we could use to get the auto-captions,” Eberts says. “They were wonderful and allowed us to enjoy our book club discussion and feel connected to one another even though we were separated physically.”

These experiences got Eberts thinking about how other people with hearing loss could also benefit from access to captions on video conferencing platforms.

“Hearing loss can be isolating to begin with,” Eberts says. “I worried that this would be exacerbated during these COVID-19 times, if people with hearing loss had no effective way to connect with friends and family via video conference.”

In most cases, auto-captions are currently hidden behind paywalls.

Read more: A guide to group video calling apps for hearing loss

Starting a Petition for Free Captions

Eberts wrote about the issue on her blog. Then, by popular demand, she started the Change.org petition to record the growing interest from the hearing loss community for equal access to communication. She says there has been overwhelming support for the petition for free captions. It has gained almost 6,500 signatures on the petition in five days.

While she wasn’t sure what to expect, Eberts had hoped for maybe 1,000 signatures. She is pushing back the goal as support grows. The latest goal was 7,500 signatures, which has already been reached. Now the goal is 10,000.

“Clearly, this issue has struck a chord with the hearing loss community,” says Eberts.

Calling for Change

The petition is an open letter to Zoom, Google, and Microsoft, and other video conferencing providers. The letters asks for free ASR captions to be available on platforms for people with hearing loss.

The beginning reads as follows:

“Providing this service for free for people with hearing loss would not only improve the accessibility of your product, it is also the right thing to do.”

The petition goes on to discuss how communicating by video call has become the new reality. While we can see the other person’s face, this doesn’t always correlate to the ability to lipread. Many people have poor Internet connections, weak microphones, or find it difficult to lipread. If the meeting has multiple participants, the difficulty level rises.

“The gold standard of captioning is Communication Access Realtime Translation or CART, where a live transcriber types what is spoken in real-time,” the letter says. “But technology is rapidly catching up and now a handful of high-quality automatic speech recognition (ASR) options do exist. In these times of change, an ASR alternative can be acceptable for most communications.”

Current Options

While Zoom provides the option to offer CART, it can be cost-prohibitive. A popular workaround has been to call in via a free captioning app. However, this is no longer an option for the basic, free accounts. The next tier is the Pro version and starts at $14.99/month/host. 

Otter.ai is also integrated with Zoom, but only in paid accounts. Likewise, Google has limited its ASR captioning to paid G-Suite customers. April 28, Google announced it is making Google Meet free to consumers. Only a Google account is needed (not G-Suite), and the 60-minute cap won’t be enforced until after Sept. 30. Users have reported that the real-time captions on Meet are pretty accurate.

Microsoft offers free captioning through PowerPoint, Microsoft Stream, and Skype, but restricts access for larger meetings behind a paywall.

Zoom removed the 40-minute time limit on the Basic free account for K-12 schools affected by COVID-19. Can something similar be done with captions?

Should Free Captions be for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Only?

Although Eberts has seen a lot of support on her petition, there are also people who question if this is the best way to go about receiving captions for the community.

Rachel Chaikof, who has cochlear implants, shared her thoughts on Facebook about the petition. 

“In my opinion, asking to make the apps free for deaf and hard of hearing people while asking the rest of the population to pay the subscription is going too far,” Chaikof says. “How can the companies verify that you are deaf or hard of hearing to be able to offer the app for free? Should those deaf and hard of hearing people who have a good-paying jobs and do not earn less than average be able to get the apps for free? What about other marginalized populations who are financially disadvantaged but are not deaf or hard of hearing? Should they be offered the apps for free too?”

Eberts acknowledges that these are valid questions. She says it’s wonderful that auto-captioning is available in some of the premium apps at no additional charge. For many people with hearing loss, this is out of reach economically, especially since various meetings and social gatherings don’t all take place on one platform. This would mean paying for multiple platforms.

“Just as people who have no mobility issues don’t have to pay to use ramps, why should people with hearing loss have to pay for equal access to communication?” she asks. “Captions are our ramps.”

“Captions are our ramps.”

She provides a relevant example of the free access that people with hearing loss have to captioned phone calls. This requires a note or audiogram from an audiologist to verify the hearing loss and install a free captioned phone.

“As communication moves to videoconferencing, I am simply asking for the same type of access for people with hearing loss,” she says. “A similar validation process could be used here too.”

Moving Forward

Eberts plans to collect signatures for as long as people want to sign. She intends to contact the companies this week to educate them about the request and demonstrate the strong support of the hearing loss community. She reports that signers have come from all over the United States as well as many places around the world.

When people sign, there’s an opportunity to share why.

 “Most of the video meeting platforms, if they have captions, can only be activated and used by paid subscribers,” a petition comment says. “This excludes me from participating and limits my accessibility. This is wrong when you have this tool and capability and you hold it back for profit.”

You can sign the petition here.

Author Details
Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.