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closed captions

Deaf Awareness Week: The Importance of Closed Captions

This week is Deaf Awareness Week, an annual initiative coordinated by the UK Council on deafness. It aims to improve the lives of people living with deafness and hearing loss by removing communication barriers, improving public awareness and supporting new technology.

With this in mind we want to talk about a topic that’s very close to us here at Matinée and anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing. It’s not new technology by any means but one we still don’t see being used enough or to a high enough standard. Today we want to talk about closed captions and why they’re so important – not only to people with hearing problems.

Closed captions vs subtitles

The first thing we should clear up is the difference between closed captions and subtitles – because it’s an important difference. Subtitles provide a text alternative for the dialogue in video footage while closed captions also explain other sounds that are important to the story, like a phone ringing or an engine struggling to start.

Closed captions are designed to offer a text alternative for every noise that’s important in understanding the context of a video. The idea is anyone should be able to watch with the sound turned off and still get the full experience of what’s happening on screen.

We like to confuse things a little here in the UK, though, and often use the term subtitles to describe captions. Call them what you like, just understand the importanance.

Here’s an insight in to one vlogger’s perspective on closed captions for YouTube.

It’s easy to understand her frustration and of course she is not the only one demanding videos with closed caption (CC). There is a big audience out there that you might be neglecting.

Why are closed captions so important?

So try watching a film without any audio whatsoever and see what kind of experience you get. Then try watching a tutorial without audio to see how much you understand and learn. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of audio because we think of video as a visual format. And we all might interpret things differently.

Consider how many different types of audio there can be at any given time in a video:

• On-screen dialogue: Characters, presenters, panellists you can see talking on-screen.
• Off-screen dialogue: Narrators, characters, etc. talking out of view.
• On-screen action sounds: Anything from wheels screeching to footsteps or putting a mug down on the table – as long as it’s on screen
• Off-screen action sounds: Someone walking through the door, a phone ringing or gunshots off-screen.
• Background noise: Traffic, conversation, wind, etc.
• Music Soundtrack: The music added over the video; only heard by the audience.
• In-story media: Music, TV, news items and other media heard by characters within a story.
• Sound effects: Additional sounds overlaid in post-production

These different forms of audio are often interwoven throughout TV, films, documentaries and all kinds of productions. Many of them you’ll barely even notice, but without them you’ll be missing out on a wide range of the techniques commonly used to construct a story.

Closed captions are important because they help describe every audio element that plays a role in the wider story, not only spoken words.

Who uses closed captions and why?

A study on television accessibility by Ofcom finds that 80% of people who use closed captions are neither deaf nor hard of hearing. And, while the remaining 20% is the most important audience to provide closed captions for, this goes to show how many environments call for closed captions.

Here are some of the reasons that someone from that 80% might prefer to watch video with CC.

• Watching something in a loud environment
• Watching something without distracting others
• When the audio speakers on a device aren’t loud enough
• When the volume of a video is inconsistent (quiet dialogue vs loud explosions)
• Watching something in a foreign language
• Watching something with sensitive subject matter in public
• To save battery consumption
• For taking notes from educational or resource videos

The list could go on and failing to offer captions in these settings probably means losing a viewer.

For the purpose of today, though, we want to emphasise the importance of closed captions for those 20% of deaf and hard hearing viewers. Because alternatives like plugging in earphones or waiting until their alone doesn’t work for everyone – and 20% is a huge demographic to exclude.

It’s that kind of exclusion Deaf Awareness Week is trying to fight – but that will only happen when closed captions and other accessibility methods and technology become the norm.

Share this blog and raise awareness, do your part for Deaf Awareness Week.