Saturday, February 9, 2013

Conference Captioning

I really enjoy open captioning on the big screen for conferences and professional events, but I don't get the chance to do it as often as I'd like. Partly that's because my weekday schedule is pretty full, so I'm only available on weekends. But partly it's because, while captioning is an extremely useful accommodation for many people, most of those people either don't know that captioning exists or that they have the right to request it from the organizers of the conference. In the USA, one in seven people have hearing loss. For people over 65, that rate goes up to one in three. Events at most conferences seat hundreds of people, so statistically it's a sure bet that at least some of those people would benefit from captioning. Even people with mild hearing loss, who do quite well in one-on-one social situations by using a combination of residual hearing, lip reading, and context clues, often have trouble with conference audio, which can be distorted in the amplification process, and which puts the speaker so far away from the audience that lipreading becomes impossible. There's also the benefits that captioning can offer people without hearing loss, who may be more comfortable reading written English than understanding spoken English (very common when English isn't a person's first language), or who may have central audio processing issues (very common in Aspergers and autism) or attention deficit issues such as ADHD. I remember one event I captioned, when I looked over my shoulder and saw a bevy of Samsung executives all reading my captions with great excitement. Their English was excellent, but the rate of American speech was sometimes too quick for them to parse comfortably, so they found the captions incredibly useful in making sure that they were getting everything. After the event, one of them asked if I would be willing to move to Korea so I could caption all of their English language meetings, but I told him regretfully that I needed to stay in New York. Even non-disabled native English speakers often find captioning helpful when trying to assimilate a large amount of rapid-fire information; captioning can give them correct spellings of difficult words, allow them to take more detailed notes, and provide dual-sensory feedback by sending the same information to their eyes and ears at the same time, which improves memory and retention. After every event I caption, I get dozens of people coming up to me and saying how useful they found the captioning. Some of those people self-identify as deaf or hard of hearing, but the majority do not. So why isn't conference captioning more common? There are a number of reasons:

• People don't request captions. Refer back to that figure I mentioned up above. Of those one in seven people with hearing loss, very few feel comfortable requesting captioning. It takes an average of five years between the onset of hearing loss and a person admitting that they have it, even to themselves. There's still a tremendous amount of social stigma involved in admitting hearing loss. They don't like talking about it, and many would suffer through the frustrations of inaudible speech and missed information than ask for any special treatment. Even for people who realize that they can't hear very well in a large lecture hall, so few of them have seen or heard of captioning, that most wouldn't know to ask for it in the first place.

• Conferences don't want to pay for it. Captioners come with a certain amount of sticker shock, it's true, but I think the problem is more that it's an unfamiliar service, and the value of it is not clear to the people in charge of deciding what to spend their attendees' money on. Thirty years ago, most conference organizers would balk at the idea of having to supply a computer, projector, and screen to every room so that each presenter could display PowerPoint slides, but these days it's de rigueur. Food costs money. Chairs cost money. Event space costs money. By adding a small surcharge to each attendee's ticket price, the captioning could be paid for quite easily, but organizers need to be convinced of its value first, and that's difficult to do because of the relative rarity of captioning right now. It needs to build up a certain amount of recognition and momentum before it's truly accepted as an ordinary conference amenity, like free wi-fi or complimentary lanyards. I've found that it's often easier to get the sponsors of conferences to pay for the captioning than to ask the organizers themselves. The companies that sponsor conferences like to be seen providing a public service, and accessibility is becoming a mark of good citizenship. If you propose captioning at a conference and the organizer swears that it's impossible (which, incidentally, is a violation of the ADA, but there's not much you can do to enforce that, short of a lawsuit), ask them if any of their sponsors would like to pay for the captioning in exchange for prominent billing. Also, whenever possible, ask organizers to survey their attendees after every captioned conference. The more positive feedback they get from people who appreciated the captions, the more likely they are to offer captioning in the future.

• CART provider availability is limited. Again, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem; there isn't enough conference captioning to supply a typical provider's schedule on its own, so most providers pay the bills with academic captioning. Academic captioning schedules tend to conflict with all but weekend conferences. Conferences sometimes reach out to providers, only to find that no one's available. Captioning is put back in the "impossible" column, and the cycle perpetuates itself. I think the only solution is to increase the amount of conference captioning, so that some providers can specialize in it, and not be forced to tie themselves down to academic schedules.

• Reserved caption seating is often counterproductive. I've captioned at a few events in the past few weeks, and two of them employed a captioning section, near the CART screens. Of course, this was better than no captioning at all, but it still wasn't ideal. For one thing, the seatbacks had "reserved for CART" posted on them by the conference staff. At one conference these seats were nearly all occupied a group of self-identified late deafened people, who had requested the captioning in advance, and it worked out fairly well, even though looking out into the crowd I saw dozens of people over 65, many of whom almost certainly had some hearing loss, who were unable to benefit from the captions due to the screen size and placement. At the other conference, nearly all the "reserved for CART" seats were empty for several hours until I got wise and removed them. Then they all filled up with people who followed the captions avidly and made a point to come up and thank me afterwards, telling me how useful they'd found them. The problem was that word "reserved". It makes people think that they've got to be on some list before they're allowed to sit there, and many people who need captions stay away from those seats, because they assume they must not be in the "reserved" group. The solution, of course, is to avoid small projector screens and caption vs. non-caption seating whenever possible; providing open captions to the entire room (and, if the event has a simultaneous webcast, to the internet as well) by using large centralized screens. I'm very excited about Text On Top, a new device that seems to allow CART providers to overlay their captions on the presenter's own PowerPoint slides. Up until now it's only been available in Europe, but it just came out in the United States, and I'll be buying one soon. I'll probably put a review of it up here, so stay tuned.

For a great discussion of event accessibility from a consumer's perspective, read CART or ASL or ALD by Svetlana Kouznetsova on her excellent Audio Accessibility page. She goes into the intricacies of when CART is preferred to Sign Language interpretation (and vice versa) and the logistical tradeoffs of employing each accommodation. I hope that eventually captioning will become second nature to all organizers of large events, without it having to be specifically requested each time, but for now I'm grateful for each conference I get the chance to caption. The more people see it, the more they'll want it.


  1. Great blog and sending it out today to others. Very important.

    If we can find funding for the CCAC, we can do so much more!


  2. Thanks, Mirabai, for highlighting the need for open captions for conferences and conventions. You've succinctly pointed out all the plusses. I, too, am excited about the ToT device! We just received ours in the mail and plan to start testing soon!

  3. Thanks, Patti! Are you planning to review it once you test it? If so, I'll look forward to reading your review.

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