The Call for Captions

Closed captioning logo
My mom has always wanted to learn to play the violin. Coming from a family of music lovers, she had played the trumpet and piano growing up, but had no prior experience with a stringed instrument. After a bit of research, she found a violin with good reviews online and placed the order. She thought that going the DIY route with some YouTube lessons might be a good starting point just to see how far she could get on her own. She quickly realized that she couldn’t just start playing it right out of the case, so she found a few videos showing how to set up the instrument. There was a fair amount of preparation involved, including tightening the bow, applying the correct amount of rosin and tuning the instrument before she could even hope to get a semblance of a musical note out of it. She has made great progress over the course of a couple of years and is enjoying her new hobby.

What makes this even more remarkable is that she has a severe hearing impairment, with 70% hearing loss in each ear. She relies heavily on hearing aids, lip reading and a special amplified telephone to conduct daily business. I see her frustrations firsthand and wish that things could be easier for her. Despite that, she still finds ways to continue learning and experiencing the simple pleasures that the hearing population takes for granted.

Inspired by her progress with learning to play the violin, I decided to try my hand at developing a new skill of my own. This past Christmas, while sitting down to write out our annual Christmas cards, I was reminded of the abysmal state of my handwriting. Most writing these days is by way of a keyboard or touch screen, so the art of handwriting is quickly becoming lost. I will admit this article was partially written on my iPhone.

So, a few weeks ago, I headed to an art supply shop to acquire some basic calligraphy supplies: a pen with various nibs and a jar of ink. I found some calligraphy tutorials online, including one lone calligraphy video from a math teacher, Rob Tarrou, on YouTube. As I was scrolling through his list of videos, one video, entitled “Thank You and Request for Close Captioning Help,” caught my eye. In this video, he reminded us of the need for closed captioning. He mentioned that he wanted to continue creating new videos, but because of the backlog of work trying to caption all the current videos, it was taking him much longer to produce them. He understands the importance of accessibility for his audience, including those who, like my mom, are hearing impaired or speak English as their second language.

Luckily, in November of 2015, Google made it possible for crowd-sourced captioning on YouTube. There was already a feature for auto-captioning, but if you have ever activated that feature, you would see right away that there is a very low level of accuracy with auto-captions. With time, the technology will improve, but for now, it’s lacking.

That’s where crowd-sourced captions come in. Tarrou has requested the help of his fans to input captions for his videos. Through a simple interface within YouTube, fans can type captions and sync them with the audio. To ensure accuracy, the captions can then be submitted for review by other fans and, ultimately, by the video owner before they are published.

Screencapture of a YouTube video
Rob Tarrou, from Tarrou’s Chalk Talk, urges his fans to help with captioning his videos to promote accessibility.

The benefits of captioning are many. In addition to providing accessibility for the deaf or hearing impaired, captioning helps those with learning disabilities or those who are trying to learn a new language. Captions may be used as an aid for reinforcing learning or when needing to keep a video muted for a quiet work environment. Beyond that, captioning helps with search engine optimization. Search engines can only index videos if there is text accompanying them. The search engine ranking for captioned videos is drastically increased, thereby increasing viewership and popularity.

Video producers such as Tarrou, who provides high-quality instructional content for free, rely on their fan base, who can volunteer some time to “pay it forward” with captioning. He admits that the process of captioning is quite time-consuming, but is a worthwhile endeavor for maintaining and promoting accessibility. I know my mom would appreciate it.


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