Hearing Loss Isn’t the Only Reason for Closed Captioning and Subtitles

The World Health Organization estimates there are 360 million people worldwide who suffer from disabling hearing loss. That’s more than five percent of the world population, and about 42 million more people than the entire U.S. population as estimated by the census bureau in 2014. It may be true that a significant portion of those people live in underdeveloped parts of the world where video content is not the everyday occurrence that it is for those of us who live in the U.S. And if you’re producing video content of any kind, you may find it easy to slip into thinking that the content you produce should be designed for your specific audience, which has a statistically low percentage of deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

With that idea in mind, you may conclude that laws requiring closed captioning simply add to your expenses while benefiting relatively few people. However, captioning isn’t useful to only the hearing impaired. In fact, a study conducted in the U.K. and reported by the BBC found that 80 percent of people who used closed captions (often referred to as ‘TV subtitles’ in England) have no hearing loss at all. There are some circumstances that make it useful to anyone. Here are a few examples.

1. When viewers are non-native speakers of English

People who have immigrated to the United States are known to use closed captions and subtitles to augment their language learning process. In fact, prior the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990, which mandated that all new model television sets be equipped with closed captioning decoders, the demographic who bought the most closed caption decoding equipment in the U.S. were ESL learners.

Both closed captioned and subtitled video content are great supplemental tools for anyone learning English. While not nearly as social, watching closed captioned programs is certainly far less expensive than enrolling in language classes at a community college.

2. When video content is viewed in sound-sensitive or noisy environments

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 all contribute to a set of civil rights regulations that prohibit discrimination and require accommodations like captioning to ensure equal access and opportunities for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to participate in civil society. These laws, combined with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the related regulations issued by the FCC, have made closed captioning services from experienced closed captioning companies a necessity in the television and video production industry. But again, the general public actually benefits in far greater numbers than the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

From bars and restaurants to health clubs and airports, closed captions enable viewers to understand what’s happening onscreen when either the background noise is too high or the TV volume is too low. Think about the last sporting event you tried to follow when out at a bar or restaurant. Without captions, you’d have no idea what had happened when you glanced away from the screen. Closed captions also come in handy where multiple televisions are displaying different programs and cross-chatter would be a problem for viewers. And people working in close-quarters office environments who often need to view video content for training purposes find closed captioning very useful.

3. When dialog is heavily accented, mumbled, or obscured

It’s possible to misunderstand even one’s own native language. A recent independent film titled Under the Skin, released in 2014, starring Scarlett Johansson was written and performed entirely in English. However, every single one of the supporting cast members spoke with such heavy, Scottish accents that the dialogue was utterly incomprehensible to American English speakers. Watching that film with the closed captioning turned on would be a completely different experience. Of course, some have speculated that the film’s producers did not use English subtitles to aid the audience’s understanding because the sense of confusion resulting from the accented dialogue was a deliberate goal.

That’s just one example. There are many films and television shows in which unusual accents, unfamiliar dialects and on-screen background noise limit the viewer’s understanding of what’s being said. Sometimes film directors mitigate those problems with English subtitles in selected parts of the primary version of the film. Sometimes they have artistically-justified reasons not to. When they don’t, viewers have the option to enable the closed captions.

Closed captioning continues to grow in both its scope and its usefulness. In fact, according to the National Organization for the Deaf, ‘Efforts are underway to employ captions to provide access to one form of communication and entertainment that has been around for ages, yet remains inaccessible to millions of deaf and hard of hearing people: radio.’

The U.S. Department of Education awarded a grant to NPR and WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media to develop radio technology ‘akin to the old television closed captioning decoders’ that will make radio broadcasts accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. NPR has already tested the use of captions with some of their broadcasts that they stream over the internet. Like the closed captioning of television and video media, it’s expected that radios equipped with caption displays will soon hit the market. And like all other iterations of closed captioning technology, the general public will most likely benefit from those as well.

Jenn Rogers