Black ASL interpreter Billy Sanders
‘ASL Bae’: Get to know Black ASL interpreter Billy Sanders
March 10, 2021
history of hearing aids
A brief history of hearing aids
March 15, 2021

The importance of captions and how they can improve

importance of captions

Captions, or subtitles, can be useful or frustrating, depending who you ask. Those scrolling words on TV, movies or videos have their uses, though, especially for people who don’t understand the verbal language on the screen, and for people with hearing loss,  

When my wife lost her hearing, I experienced the importance of captions firsthand, and now, slowly, I’m coming to accept them. 

Subtitle User by Default

The importance of captions can’t be denied. But there is no doubt that captions (or subtitles, as we call them in the UK), can be the cause of deep frustration. Sometimes they are incorrect, misleading, and delayed, or worse, absent altogether.

I first became a subtitle user by default. When my wife Angie lost the bulk of her hearing, captions became a lifeline. People on TV, especially with deeper voices and those with unfamiliar accents, were difficult for Angie to comprehend. This was especially the case when she was still exploring which hearing aids and assistive devices would suit her best.

For those with hearing loss, this is not a new subject. It might be useful for people like me, who may be new to supporting someone with hearing loss, to note the types of TV content that can be difficult to comprehend. Some shows or movies will be harder to follow than others. Suggesting that you turn up the volume is unlikely to be the answer.

TV is Difficult to Follow For People with Hearing Loss

Following TV audio is made harder by incidental music and sound effects masking speech. Shows and movies with dialogue, mixed in with music and vocals, are really tough. Unseen narrators and ones whose mouths are covered are especially tricky. Hospital dramas, where actors speak through their surgical masks and use technical, unfamiliar terms, may be difficult to enjoy.

It is no surprise that watching TV can be tiring for many people with hearing loss. This is ironic, considering it is the way so many people choose to unwind. 

Read more: Can’t hear the TV? 3 tips for watching television with hearing loss

The Importance of Captions

Captions became essential to us. They allowed Angie to stay connected to her favorite entertainment shows, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, news and current affairs. The importance of captions is something that has been highlighted in older people with hearing loss. TV plays an important role in maintaining their connections with the wider world. I wonder if it goes a little further, especially when we are seeing increasing amounts of polarization and rejection of shared truths and narratives? When social media may help corral some people into silos and echo chambers, the ability for all to participate equally is surely ever more necessary.

Initially, I was not thrilled at the appearance of text over my favorite shows and movies. For the first few months, I employed various strategies to avoid seeing them. I’d lay on the sofa or arrange cushions in such a way so they’d block the bottom of the screen. That way I didn’t have to see the “distractions.” This is not a bad technique, by the way. It was certainly comfortable. Slowly I found I was watching more and more TV without noticing the captions were on. In this way, I joined the 10 percent of UK viewers who use subtitles regularly, a figure from the BBC.

“Slowly I found I was watching more and more TV without noticing the captions were on.”

If I’m truthful, I probably should have been more willing to accommodate Angie’s needs much earlier. I can’t recall now when I realized that the captions ought to stay on at all times. As Angie gained confidence in asking for adjustments to be made in general, she felt more able to remind me that I should be more accommodating. Perhaps there was a day when I first started preempting her asking me to press the button and just did so. It became normal.

You Will Get Used to Captions

Another method we used to make TV easier would be to find movies in foreign languages. This made our shared experience more similar. We started doing this just as streaming services were starting to become popular in the UK. I recall watching some French cinema and realizing just how much more relaxing it was for Angie. Since then, the numbers of excellent foreign language shows and movies available have increased enormously.

There will be lots of couples and families that have gone through the same thing we did. No doubt there are people right now who are asking their loved ones to hit the caption button on the remote, hoping not to provoke an argument. All I can tell you is that you will get used to captions. It does not take long to adjust to their presence. In our household and with our TV they seem to stay on by default once selected. Very often when I’m watching TV alone, I’m quite a way into a show before I realize the captions are on, assuming I notice at all.

Captions Benefit Everyone

As my mild hearing loss has developed – I seem to have problems with the higher frequencies – I’m finding I need the occasional reassurance that captions provide. Interestingly, research has shown that not all caption users have hearing loss. They can benefit people learning English or learning how to read.

In 2013, Ofcom, the UK’s Communications regulator, working with the charity Action on Hearing Loss, found the following:

67% of people with hearing loss said that TV is important to them
People with hearing loss watch TV for an average of 4.3 hours a day
• 7.5 million people have used subtitles to watch television, although six million of them do not have hearing loss
• Nearly half of respondents with moderate hearing loss use subtitles, rising to 73% for those who are profoundly or severely deaf
• Around 70% of those with hearing loss agreed that pre-recorded and live subtitling is significantly helpful

Learning More About Captions

As I became more and more accepting of captions and realized the importance of captions as they became ever-present, I gained a new understanding of just how annoying they can be when done badly. I also saw how inconsistent they can be between platforms and providers, which is particularly noticeable as streaming and downloading TV content has become more popular. To try and understand a little more about the issue, I looked into a few ways in which captions reach our TV sets.

The first thing to become clear was I needed to use correct terminology. When I refer to captions, I should be calling them closed captions to be accurate. This is a term more familiar to US viewers I suspect, for whom the CC logo identifies the presence of captions. UK-based providers still use a capital S to indicate subtitling. Closed captions allow the viewer to actively select their presence. Open Captions, also known as “burnt-in” captions, cannot be turned off. These are used for translations, for example.

Closed captions include non-verbal audio elements, unlike subtitles in the U.S. We might, for example, read the words “thunder rumbles” or “doorbell rings,” which clearly aren’t speech, but are just as vital. In the UK, we use the word subtitles as a catch-all term and our “subs” usually have non-verbal audio indicated.

Read more: A deafie’s guide to accessing captions anywhere

Caption Challenges

Captioning provides challenges to users based partly on how it is generated. Live speech-to-text caption creation requires skilled operators to listen along to the output. They create text as they go and do their best to render the speech accurately. This may involve the use of software to assist the operator who may override the computer’s suggestions. As a result, the captions often run a little late compared to the audio. It’s often the way captions on live news channels are generated.

As I think we all know, live captioning can result in some amusing mistakes. I urge you to do a little Google search on “closed caption fails,” or something similar. Be aware, though, that some of them are of an adult nature. Mostly, the mistakes are just annoying. It may only be the hearing people in the room that can pick them up. Those relying entirely on captioning may not realize just how poor the captions are.

Most captions are provided with the movie or show, and broadcast along with it. Quite a number of companies provide captioning services to broadcasters and content providers. This is where variability can creep in again, with timing issues often ruining comedy shows. Worse perhaps, are captions bearing little resemblance to the original dialogue. In this case, they’re more a summary of the dialogue than a verbatim account, thus simplifying what is said. A great example would be the hospital drama “ER,” shown on All4 (channel 4’s on-demand streaming service in the UK). The captions provided for this show bear only a limited resemblance to the dialogue. Honestly, check it out. It’’s shockingly poor!

TVs and Streaming Platforms

On-demand services accessed on TVs or other devices may not allow captions. Sometimes this can be remedied by updating the devices’ software, but not always. We have a TV which does not allow the ITV Hub to show captions, but other TVs will. If you are updating your equipment, check online to make sure you can access your favorite channel’s captioning. Reach out to the manufacturer via their customer service if needed. This level of detail is unlikely to be noted in any sales literature.

The advent of streaming platforms has highlighted the variation in captioning output. Streaming services such as Netflix have become significantly better since viewers complained several years ago that captions on their top shows did not accurately reflect the conversations on screen.

Read more: Accessible technology for people with hearing loss

Caption Inconsistency

Not all services are the same though. Amazon Prime in the UK does not provide captions for all of its content. This can be deeply annoying when the same show has captions available for US viewers. In the UK, it appears captions are standard on the BBC and BBC iPlayer, though other major broadcasters do not provide all of their output with captions. Ofcom requires major broadcasters to provide an increasing amount of their content with captions.

The regulations are a little confusing when you dig into them. Length of time the broadcaster has been operating is a factor. There’s no requirement for the entirety of content to be captioned. Rules for the BBC are stricter. In the U.S., as I understand it, captioning is required on all broadcast TV with a few, minor exceptions.

Read more: Online meetings are easier for people with hearing loss 

A Simple Ask

That’s the state of play. It’s a bit confusing and variable to say the best. The importance of captions can’t be understated. Having learned to accept and even welcome captions in some circumstances, I’m now finding it is caption quality which I now find frustrating. 

I want to watch a channel and know that captions from one show to another will be consistent in style, format, and accuracy. When I watch on-demand TV and stream video, I want to know that I’ll see captions, regardless of the device or app used. Captions should be available on every show or movie on the streaming services I pay at least one billion dollars for, or I shall vote with my wallet. Furthermore, I don’t want profanity replaced with asterisks. I don’t want what a third-party writer decides the actors might have been saying. The creators’ vision should be as close to what I can perceive as possible. This should be done reliably and accurately, and isn’t too much to ask, I think.

Author Details
I live in beautiful, rural Scotland with my wife Angie and our two dogs Tilly and Henry. Angie has sensorineural hearing loss and is a Phonak CROS user and I think over the years since her diagnosis I’ve learned quite a bit about hearing loss and how it can impact relationships. I work as a freelance writer and photographer and also run a small wildlife friendly gardening business.