Why Closed Captioning? It's About Accessibility

IKEA sign in block letters that says "Design for Everyone"
If you've been keeping track over the last few months, I've shared 6 reasons to caption your content. Today, I share my "why" for captioning.

This Create Accessibility project began with the vision deck and video as part of my application for the Google Certified Innovator program last Spring. When I received the acceptance email to attend the Google Innovation Academy in Boulder, CO, it was a mixture of sheer joy and disbelief. Within the acceptance notification email there's a link to a Google Form to confirm your spot. I clicked on it almost immediately to began filling it out and then was stopped in my tracks by the accommodation question. What do I put? Do I ask for reasonable accommodations for my disability, do I ask for watered-down accommodations that do not have a price tag attached, or leave it blank? I needed to think about this and would only return later to confirm my involvement. I'm sure this is not the typical response to learning you've been accepted to the Google Certified Innovator program. Here's why.

In 2005, I learned my childhood hearing loss had taken a deep dive plunge. It was a shock. The thing about myself that I learned to hide in school to avoid the overwhelming stigma and lowered expectations was now unavoidable. This dramatic loss didn't occur overnight and went unnoticed for a period of time because I had changed my habits unknowingly as a result. My preferred communication methods became text and email instead of the telephone. I avoided outings in large groups to noisy locations. My theater attendance had decreased dramatically. Looking at the reality of my audiogram, it all made sense. Unknowingly, I was working harder to fill in language communication gaps around me and things I used to enjoy in my free time were no longer enjoyable following what was sometimes an exhausting day of communication.

With this new diagnosis, I began learning about assistive technologies. Movie theaters offered open-caption movie times where captions were displayed openly on the screen. There were also assistive listening devices available on request as both movie theaters and live theater venues. These devices have headphones that are directly tied into the theater's audio output. The clarity of audio is so much better and as a user you also have volume controls. These devices being readily available helped make live theater enjoyable again! It was easy to request these devices and the only pushback I've ever gotten was when requesting an assistive device for Jesus Christ Superstar. The usher warned me that the performance, as a Rock Opera, was very loud and cautioned that the device may not be necessary. It ended up being perfect for me!

In contrast to theaters where assistive technologies were readily available, easy to request and use, I quickly learned it would be a completely different experience when requesting accommodations related to schooling. I had made an accommodations request for an assistive listening device at the college I began attending to take additional special education credential courses to add to my elementary teaching credential. I filled out all the documentation, including the required medical information from my specialist and submitted it all shortly after enrolling in my first class. It was in the middle of my last class in the program that I finally received an assistive listening device to use in class. The 6-7 months in between were spent going back and forth with the disability office justifying my need. They felt it was unnecessary because I was doing just fine in class without it. Several times the cost was mentioned and I couldn't help but feel that according to college, my learning did not justify the expense. Those weren't pretty times. I was teaching all day, and then attending a 3-4 hour lecture-style class twice a week at night and working excruciatingly hard to capture what was being said. And if I had a cold or worse yet an ear infection, it made everything much more difficult. There were many tears of absolute frustration shed during that time all because of the perception that my hearing wasn't bad enough because I was doing "fine" according to the college. Needless to say, I finished the required classes as quickly as possible and removed myself from this environment.

Also during this time, I had my first experience of being disinvited to an event when I requested an accommodation. I was and still am interested in pursuing a doctoral degree. I had signed up for a information session/meet and greet/introductory class at a different college than the one above! I asked for accommodations and later got an email that the event had been cancelled and will be rescheduled in the future. I had heard about the experience of people with disabilities being disinvited to events after requesting accommodations and so I registered for the same event using a different name and email address and proceeded to receive updates regarding the event that had been "cancelled." Needless to say, I did not attend and have crossed off this institute of higher learning from possible consideration for future doctoral study.

These are just a few experiences that still cause me to pause each and every time when deciding whether or not to disclose my disability and request accommodations. 

When I was in Boulder for the Google Innovator Academy, I did end up requesting accommodations that didn't cost anything out of fear of being disinvited or having to prove I'm disabled enough for them. I received exactly the accommodations I asked for: preferential seating, captions displayed on videos or access to the videos simultaneously so I could watch the videos on my personal device with captions enabled. No captions were ever displayed to the whole group throughout the 2 1/2 day academy however I had access to the slide deck and did my best watching videos simultaneously on my device with the captions enabled with the audio streaming through my hearing aids. A few of the videos had closed captioning. All the other videos were missing captions or had auto-generated captions with multiple errors. Towards the end of the event, a Google employee spoke about Google's culture and work environment and how they appreciate working in a place where they can be their whole self everyday and that is honored, I realized how captioning helps affirm my identity. The inclusion and display of captions means that someone considered the diversity of users that may be interacting with their content.

That's the thing about captions. It's relatively easy to do on your own content. It's even easier to press the Closed Captioning Button on other people's content. Each time captions are displayed I feel an overwhelming sense of belonging. A conscious choice has been made to design for human variability that goes beyond what is considered the norm. However, my experience has been this is rarely done. In the last year, I can count on one hand the number of times captions were displayed during an Education-related conference I've attended. (I'm a PD junkie so I attend A LOT of different events.) As my hearing continues to decline, it's difficult to see myself, or others with disabilities, in these communities.

It's a battle. Good, quality captions dramatically improve comprehension. When I watch videos simultaneously on a personal device when captions aren't displayed, these videos often aren't vetted for their captions and I rely on dreaded auto-captions. What happens with poor quality auto-captions is it creates this cognitive dissonance when the captions don't align with the context and what I hear. This dissonance is only heightened when encountering objectionable content, racial slurs, or vulgar language. The overall effect is diminished comprehension and frustration. 

That's why captioning is about ultimately about accessibility. Captioning gives more people the tools to create meaning and be part of the conversation. Closed captioning provides access to the Deaf, hard of hearing, those with auditory processing disorders, and more. It's about making the choice for designing for the variability that exists. 

The name of my ever-evolving project Create Accessibility was intentional. Create connotes action and a choice. Accessibility because there can't be inclusive communities, environments, and spaces without access. The picture above was taken during a recent IKEA trip. When we employ user-centered design principles and take in account the natural human variability that exists in how we experience and interact with the world, we end up with a better end product. As educators, who are creating and sharing more and more digital materials with the world and encouraging their students to do the same, creating for variability allows for increased access. That's why I want to continue to increase awareness and develop different workflows to make accessibility part of the creation process.

It's a full-circle moment. My session proposal on Create Accessibility was accepted recently for ISTE in June. I started my registration and was stopped in my tracks yet again by the accessibility question. Based on my experiences with disability, I still don't know how I will respond to this...yet.

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