Where’s Voice for Captioning? (And not just at the movies)

Bald man with a beard holding two paper cups over his ears.

I am one of the millions of Australians who have been duped into signing up for Netflix. Now I can’t turn the bloody thing off. For the first time ever I can watch any show I choose and all are captioned.  Netflix captions are quite amusing though. My hearing son tells me they are edited and sanitised, particularly American shows. For example the actor on screen will say FUCKING and the captions say FRIGGING. Last night on Suits they wouldn’t even caption the word SHIT – each time an actor used the word SHIT – which was frequently – the caption read SH–. Even BULLSHIT was sanitised to BULLSH–. I’m deaf you know, cant have my eyes seeing what all are hearing. God forbid! Still it’s access, and 100% access. I can live with it.

I have been given cause to think a lot about captioning lately. Captioning is not just about the movies. For some it is about communication. Communication in the same way that Deaf community members use Auslan interpreters. Auslan interpreters are used in so many situations. They are used for work, to visit the doctor, at university, for weddings and funerals, the theatre and so on. Hell, Auslan interpreters are even on show when the Government makes emergency announcements.

I have no complaints and I utilise Auslan interpreters regularly for work, training and medical reasons. But of late I have come to realise that I am actually a minority among people who are deaf. You see most people who are deaf actually do not sign. There are many that rely on residual hearing, lip-reading, writing, taking notes and, of course, captioning.

A report produced by Orima in 2004, Supply and Demand of Auslan Interpreters, indicates that the population of Auslan users that benefit from Auslan interpreters is around 7 000.  Dr Trevor Johnston, author of the famed Auslan Dictionary, indicates it might be around 6 500. Some estimates suggest that the figure may be as high as 15 000. These statistics are probably not accurate because apparently some people indicate that they use sign language rather than Auslan. I’m not sure what this means but it could include bastardised forms of Auslan like Signed English, Signs in English, or even Makaton.

For arguments sake let’s say the population is around 7 000. Let’s compare that with the overall statistics for hearing loss in Australia. An Access Economics report written for Vicdeaf in 2006 indicates that there were in excess of 10 000 children with a hearing loss in Australian in 2005. For Adults with a hearing loss the figure was in excess of 3 500 000.

Of this huge number only about 7 000 appear to be Auslan users. It is very clear that most people with a hearing loss in Australia are not going to benefit from Auslan interpreters. I have to ask, given Auslan users are the minority, why is captioning not more prominent as a communication support tool?

Recently I have been working on a submission with Deaf Victoria to obtain funding to host a conference about mental health and deaf people. It was successful and the conference will be hosted in November of this year. We believe that mental health support for people who are deaf in Victoria is inadequate. This conference aims to discuss why this is so and try to develop a blueprint for improvements. Much of the research into mental health and people who are deaf focuses on people that use sign language. A lot of the research highlights how the lack of access to interpreters hinders support and diagnosis. Very little appears to focus on clients who are deaf but who do not sign.

This worries me. It worries me because we know that incidence of depression, anxiety and low self esteem resulting from this social isolation among people who are deaf is higher than for people who are not deaf. This social isolation is not the sole domain of deaf people that use sign language. Indeed one could argue that sign language users are less isolated because they have access to social networks and communication through the Deaf community. Many people who are deaf, but who do not sign,  do not have the same easy access to social networks.  Arguably they are more isolated and possibly more prone to loneliness and depression.

So what happens when we have a person who is deaf, who does not sign, and has a mental health crisis? What happens to facilitate communication? What happens to ensure the right information is provided and received to make an appropriate diagnosis? We know it is hard to get Auslan interpreters for deaf people that use sign language. What of the non signers? What solutions are there?

Do we rely on lip-reading? An art that is so variable that the best lip-readers can understand nothing in many situations and 100% in ideal situations. In a crisis situation, where medical and life defining decisions are to be made, would one want to rely on lip-reading? I think not. Is there a place to get in a professional note-taker or set up an emergency captioning service to someones phone? Surely something can be done. Alarmingly no one seems to be talking about these solutions.   It all appears to be focused on sign language interpreting.

As an example there was a wonderful video on Facebook yesterday. You can watch it by clicking on this link http://www.signhealth.org.uk/a-message-from-dr-danny-sharpe/ 

On the surface Dr Danny’s message  seems great, but as you can see at the end Dr Danny begins to use sign language. It’s wonderful, but what happens if you cant sign and well meaning Dr Danny comes up and starts signing to you? If you are in a medical crisis it’s likely to add to your stress especially if you are already struggling to communicate. I have lost count the number of times a hearing person shows off their rudimentary sign language to me even before they know whether I can sign or not.

It is not just in medical situations where captioning gets lip service.  I work in education and I can tell you that captioning is nearly always overlooked when thinking of access for deaf participants. Auslan interpreters are often overlooked too. However, most times if I ask if there is access for me as a deaf person they will say Auslan interpreters have been booked. Captioning rarely gets a look in.

They will say that captioning is inflexible and doesn’t allow for full participation. This may well have been the case in the past but it is not now. In the past captioning was just on a screen but now with Live Remote Captioning you can direct it to the deaf person’s Smartphone or iPad. This allows the person who is deaf to participate in group discussions. Of course this is all dependent on good internet and audio but it can be done. I know because I have done it . Unfortunately so few people know about it and utilise captioning in this way.

And at the theatre they provide access through Auslan interpreters. This is great but if Auslan interpreters are chosen as the means of access there is no funding left for captioning. It’s equally true that if captioning is used to provide access there is no funding left for Auslan interpreters. Arguably captions would give access to more people. This is particularly so considering that most people with a hearing loss do not sign and many Auslan users can also benefit from captioning. I am not advocating that we get rid of Auslan interpreters and resort to captioning everything. I am just trying to highlight how lopsided it all is. Certainly, from my observations, there are far more Auslan interpreted theatre shows than captioned ones.

Let me get this straight, I am not advocating that captioning take precedence over Auslan interpreting. What I am saying is that we do not give enough thought to how we can facilitate comunication through captioning for people who are deaf and do not sign. These people are the majority but very little advocacy seems to go in their direction in regards o their communication support. People will say that these people use their hearing aids or cochlear implants and in most cases get along just fine. They will say that of that 3 500 000 most people are ok because their hearing loss is only mild. Well this is not true, many struggle!

People who are deaf and who do not sign have many needs in regards to communication support. Captioning offers many solutions. It can offer solutions for medical situations, for education, for work and access to community events like the upcoming Anzac day dawn services. From my perspective the debate for communication access is dominated by Auslan interpreting.  Indeed for many Auslan interpreting is seen as THE SOLUTION! Clearly it is not the solution for everyone .

It’s time to think about this huge majority of deaf people and their needs because captioning is clearly not just about the movies!

2 thoughts on “Where’s Voice for Captioning? (And not just at the movies)

  1. Gary, I agree there ought to be equal access to BOTH sign language interpreting and captioning. It’s the choice of the Deaf (with signs)/deaf (without signs) client, which mode of communication he/she wishes to have, in terms of visits to the doctor, dentist, physiotherapist and so forth.

    To have that equal access, captioning should be automatic where movie, television and led screens are shown to the general public. I am concerned that captioning is done in an arbitrary fashion based on the decisions of service providers i.e. some are for captioning and some aren’t. So, the general Deaf/deaf population do not have equal access taken for granted by those people with all their faculties. Surely, with all the advanced technology at our fingertips, captioning should not be difficult to do?

    For emergency services, sign language interpreters and captioning should be shown simultaneously. This way, no one misses out on vital information.

  2. Thank you for this article. As a deaf cuer (user of Cued Speech), my native language is English, so I strongly prefer transliteration/transcription. But I frequently run into the preconception that sign language interpretation is the best or only way to accommodate d/hh people, and educating people about other options can be a challenge. I confess sometimes I’ve contributed to that preconception because I do often use/request sign language interpreters, mostly because those are easier/quicker to access especially for real-time communication (at least until I can find good captioning options locally).

    I agree an ideal world would have both captioning and sign language services, but if you want the most bang for your buck, captioning is the way to go since you’d be accommodating not just the signing deaf population, but also oral deaf, late deafened people, and ESL speakers.

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