National Association of the Deaf

What’s the Latest With Internet Captioning?



Internet captioning has come a long way since I initially wrote about it on Dailykos yet we still have a long way to go in making internet media accessible to all deaf and hard of hearing Americans.

Internet media companies are not currently required by law to offer internet captioning, so what they are offering in terms of internet captioning is great, but it doesn’t yet expand full access for the deaf and hard of hearing to the internet because of the different technical standards when it comes to downloading codecs, processing captioning files, and making sure that the caption files are synced with the audio feeds. We need a single technical standard to help make it easier for internet media companies like Hulu.com process caption files for their online content. Content providers should also be required to keep caption files with all the media that are downloaded for Internet use so the caption files can be available and decoded by currently available application tools.

I am especially thankful to media companies like Hulu.com that have taken the lead on this issue, due to the hours they have spent in processing and getting these files from the content providers. They are a shining example of what internet media companies can do in expanding access to deaf and hard of hearing Americans. However, as we all know too well, a great majority of online media produced by media companies do not have captioning. Netflix is one of these companies and it has streaming online media which currently do not have captioning. Recently, the company itself came under attention from the deaf community after a hearing blogger posted about his attendance at the shareholders’ meeting and what the CEO, Mr. Hastings, said about the lack of captioning on the Netflix online streaming media. Here’s an excerpt of what he posted below:

I asked what Netflix was doing to make its website and online video accessible to everyone. Mr. Hastings said other sites didn't offer captions, and mentioned hulu.com as one of them. He said as time progresses, captioning technology will become more widespread, and Netflix would then incorporate it into its own technology. He also said that customers can continue to receive DVDs through the mail, and most DVDs contained captions. Unfortunately for Mr. Hastings, I use hulu.com to watch Simpsons episodes. Except for a few episodes, every Simpsons episode I've watched had captions. Obviously, the technology exists to make online video accessible to everyone, so I wasn't quite ready to let this topic pass. I gave Mr. Hastings another chance to explain how he would make his business accessible to everyone. I mentioned that hulu.com did indeed offer captions, and I said (paraphrased), "It sounds like you're not planning to do anything to add captions to your site. Am I correct in understanding that you don't plan on making your online videos accessible to the disabled?" Mr. Hastings said he would check out hulu.com, but essentially agreed that adding captions wasn't an active agenda item.

This rightly caused a huge firestorm in the online deaf and hard of hearing community, and caught the attention of Marlee Matlin, a famous deaf actress, who urged her 10,000 followers on Twitter to ask Netflix to add captions to their online streaming media. Netflix finally responded, and said that online captioning was in their development plans and would be available by the year 2010. Hopefully Netflix will keep its commitment in 2010, but that is no guarantee, and that’s why we need organizations like NAD to advocate for us on this issue.

Also, more and more companies are following the Hulu.com model, and they’re telecommunications/cable companies, which means that TV as we know it is looking to move over to the Internet. This CNN article shows that TimeWarner and Comcast are very well aware about the popularity of online TV content from Hulu.com. The question is will they offer online captioning to help expand access to the deaf and hard of hearing? Right now, we don’t have that guarantee just like we don’t have that similar guarantee with Netflix.

It’s important that we work at the grassroots level to pass legislation like the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which was introduced in the 110th Congress with the help of NAD and the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), to mandate captions on the Internet. That legislation only garnered 15 co-sponsors in the 110th Congress and will be reintroduced again in the 111th Congress by Rep. Ed Markey, according to this press release from COAT. It’s hard to know at this point whether the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act will be successful in its reintroduction, but it’s a question about knowing how to successfully apply our grassroots activism and maintaining that level of activism in lobbying our elected officials to support legislation that mandates captioning on the Internet. That is the only guarantee that we can get in writing that our online content WILL be captioned if we work hard to get legislation like this passed. So, please stay tuned with us for what NAD is doing on this issue!

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