Captioning vs Sign Language – A No Brainer?

thinkerAI Media is an Australian company. They are a great and sociably responsible company. Though they are very successful and profitable they put an enormous amount back to the community, particularly for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. The mainstay of AI Media is captioning, be it for television, media or live captioning. One of their founders, Alex Jones, is Deaf himself and is a staunch and passionate advocate for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

Recently AI Media distributed an article on Facebook. Titled simply, Sign Language vs Captioning, it asks the question as to which is more relevant. The article points out that some 20 000 Deaf people prefer Auslan as their language of choice. It then explains that there are two groups of people within the deafness population – Those who acquired their hearing loss before developing language and those that were later deafened and had a strong language base before losing their hearing. In a nutshell AI Media argue that both interpreting and captioning are equally important because of varying circumstances and the right to choice.

This is a nice and diplomatic way to keep people happy. This article is not to keep people happy. This article is aimed at challenging perceptions and it may upset some people. Now on the surface I agree with AI Media, but I think it goes deeper than that.

You see over the years I have firmly come to believe that captioning actually provides more access to more people who are Deaf or  hard of hearing. In fact I will be brave enough to suggest that captioning should actually be a priority with interpreting be offered as an option should one prefer it. Here is my argument.

Firstly most people who are deaf do not sign. Most people with any kind of hearing loss lose their hearing much later in life. Consider an article from the Hearing Loss Association of Carolina titled, Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The article points out that any where between 22 and 36 million people in United States have a hearing loss. The percentages are outlined in a graph below:


You will see that a small percentage of people use sign language as their primary language, the figure being 3%.  It becomes clear that 97% of the population are in fact people who do not use ASL as their primary language. One might assume that within that 97% there are a number of people that use both English and ASL to varying degrees of proficiency. Either way it seems that the majority of people who are deaf most likely prefer English.

Over the years I have noted that if access for people who are deaf is provided in Australia for things like education, events and the like – This is usually in the form of an Auslan interpreter. Very rarely are captions booked unless they are requested. This seems strange given that most people with a hearing loss are more likely to benefit from captioning. As cochlear implants have become the norm the need for captioning has probably become even more important now.

Now I will argue that many people with a hearing loss actually do not disclose their hearing loss, particularly people who are later deafened. Of course there are many benefits of disclosing but many do not because they are embarrassed and to do so is seen as a sign of weakness. If we are to believe Deafness Forum’s claim that one in six people have some kind of hearing loss then we can say, for arguments sake,  in an audience of 100 people you might find 20 or so people with some kind of hearing loss.

Let’s imagine that there is an event at Federation Square in Melbourne. We will say there are 5000 people in attendance. This would mean that there might be 1000 people in that audience who have a hearing loss who cannot or would struggle to understand what was going on. (This is based on 20 out of every 100 people having a hearing loss.)

Now let’s follow the American figure of 3% of people preferring sign language as their primary language. For arguments sake that could mean that of the 1000 people that are in attendance that have a hearing loss of some kind, around 30 could benefit from a sign language interpreter.

Picture the event. Perhaps it is a political rally of some kind. Adam Bandt from the Green’s comes out to talk about saving the planet. With him are two sign language interpreters. Of the people who are deaf in attendance only 30 are going to understand Adam. The other 970 are going to struggle or not understand him at all. Most likely 25 out of 30 of those that prefer Auslan have good enough English to follow Adam with captions. Would captioning not have been the better choice and have provided greater access?

To me it is a no-brainer. Captioning provides more access to a greater range of people who are deaf and should therefore be a priority. In a perfect world, where the access dollar is unlimited, perhaps we could book both and everyone would be satisfied. Sadly, we are a long way from that kind of Utopia. So if I had limited access dollars I would pump for captioning every time.

Now I do not advocate that we do away with sign language interpreters. I use them virtually everyday at work. There are circumstances where a sign language interpreter provides far superior access for me than captions might, particularly where a lot of interaction and networking is happening. It is also the right of a person to request and receive an sign language interpreter if that is what they prefer, no question.

BUT – there are situations like the one I have just described where the provision of captioning would provide greater access to a greater range of people who  are deaf. Hell, captions might also benefit people with English language issues such as people who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD). Captions are also known to benefit many Autistic people. In fact I am reliably informed that Autism is actually the second biggest market for one particular captioning company. Within that audience of 5000 there could many more that would benefit from having the event captioned.

I agree, absolutely, that the use of a sign language interpreter or captioning should come down to individual choice. BUT if it comes down to better use of limited dollars it is a different matter. There is a strong argument that the provision of captioning is a better and more responsible use of limited access dollars. Think about it!


2 thoughts on “Captioning vs Sign Language – A No Brainer?

  1. Great article! Good points. One thing is that 22-36 million of people with hearing loss in USA is old information. Actually there are about 50 million of deaf and hard of hearing people or maybe more. Signing people make about 500,000 to 2 million – if stats are right, they make about 1% of total deaf and hard of hearing people in USA. More is in the article:

  2. I found the Captioning vs Sign Language post somewhat belatedly as I searched for information on speech to text technology applicable to the deaf. I am a profoundly older deaf person and have used whatever assistive devices to remain in the hearing world because English is my language; it’s what I’ve used for all of my life. Yes, I’ve tried to learn some Auslan but realistically, I never be able to comprehend or converse in sign language at the rate interpreters use.

    I will go even further that the tenure of your article by saying that Signing seems to command a higher profile that Captioning while as you point out, delivering less benefit than having particular events captioned. We, the deafened – myself very much included, need to make organisations that represent the deaf aware of the higher proportions of deaf people that would benefit if captioning had a higher proactive agenda.

    Speech-to-text technology continues to advance with Google Voice, Siri and Cortana all vying to prove their system is best. The off spin of this is that there are applications appearing that give the deaf some hope of better and more readily available captioning services.

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