Growth of viral video leaves deaf out of loop


YouTube offers automatic captioning in English, Spanish, Japanese and Korean on many of its videos. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG NEWS)
November 28, 2012

Viral videos may be good for sharing ideas and spreading funny foreign pop hits, but they are leaving millions of deaf and hearing-impaired people out of the loop.

Online video is becoming a more ubiquitous part of American life. Netflix videos made up one-third of online data used in the United States last year. YouTube expects 90 percent of online traffic to be video in the next few years. By 2016, Cisco estimates, 1.2 million minutes of video will be streamed or downloaded every second.

That video explosion has been great for small-film and TV producers, who are able to reach an audience without a big studio budget, and fans of niche programming. But in some ways, it has left the deaf and hard-of-hearing community starting from scratch after years of advocating for captions on traditional television.

“We could be back to square one,” said Christian Vogler, director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University.

The rise of e-mails, instant messages and social media was a godsend to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, which embraced the new, text-based ways to communicate.

“In the mid- to late 1990s, it was close to the ideal medium,” Vogler said. But as the Web evolved to include more video, he said, old barriers to communication resurfaced.

Broadcasters and video services must provide online captions for sitcoms and dramas that first air on television, under 2010 regulations adopted by the Federal Communications Commission. But there are no such requirements for content made exclusively for the Web.

Some companies have launched their own efforts. Netflix, after settling with the National Association of the Deaf, has committed to captioning all of its content by 2014. But that’s a small portion of the online videos that drive the pop-culture conversation, including user-submitted videos on such sites as Google’s YouTube.

“The video that people watch and talk about around the water cooler is less often, ‘Did you see the news report?’ ” said Blake Reid, a lawyer who has worked with advocacy groups for the deaf and hard of hearing. “It’s, ‘Did you see that video going around on YouTube, that viral video?’ ”

The line between online video and television is becoming more arbitrary, advocates said, adding that federal regulations should reflect this shift.

“By and large, they are separate worlds at this point,” Reid said. But that separation is disappearing, he added. “That’s one of our next fronts to look at, but we’re not there yet.”

To tackle the problem, YouTube offers automatic captioning in English, Spanish, Japanese and Korean on many of its videos.

And the company announced Wednesday that it is extending the number of auto-caption languages, adding support for German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Russian and Dutch.

It’s not an ideal solution: Speech-recognition software is far from perfect. Still, the company hopes that providing the captions will get more people focused on the issue.

“When people ask me what are the biggest challenges for accessibility on the Web, I like to tell them that there are no technical challenges. It’s not rocket science — for me anyway. The real challenge is awareness,” said Ken Harrenstien, a deaf Google engineer who has led the effort to get captions on YouTube videos.

YouTube users can also upload transcripts to accompany their videos. That makes the captioning process easier, clearing one of the hurdles to the effort, Harrenstien said.

“Auto-captions aren’t great but are better than nothing,” he said. “The real value is in helping people create real captions from them.”

Advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing call YouTube’s efforts a good first step but say the technology has a long way to go.

“It doesn’t replace quality captioning by itself,” said James House, public relations director for Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Last month, clips of an animated sign-language interpreter at New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s news conference on Hurricane Sandy went viral, pulling the issue of communicating disaster information to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community into the spotlight.

Clips of that news conference had no captions — leaving those who don’t sign in the dark about the emergency information. In at least one clip that was widely circulated, interpreters were cropped out of frame.

“In cases of emergencies, it [is] vital that we have all the information available to us,” House said. “Access to information has been labeled as a civil right or even a basic human right.”

For now, advocates continue to work with industry providers such as Netflix and Hulu to provide captioning on all platforms. Over the next year, the captioning requirements applied to sitcoms and other prerecorded shows will also apply to live and near-live programs, including the nightly news and broadcast shows edited for the Internet. By March 2016, broadcasters will have to put captions on archival programming.

Advocates say that although Google, Apple and other companies have taken it upon themselves to get ahead of the captioning curve, more regulation is necessary to get captions on the majority of videos.

“Voluntary efforts can come and go,” House said.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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