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Captioned Video on the Internet

Captioned Video on the Internet

By Cheryl Heppner

Editor: As usual, NVRC and Cheryl Heppner are taking the lead on advocacy issues important to people with hearing loss. Here’s her recent article on ensuring that internet videos are captioned.

If you’d like to share this information, please see the credit at the end of the article.


During the past year, there’s been a quantum leap in the number of deaf and hard of hearing individuals who have complained to NVRC about video news and entertainment on the Internet without captioning. I’ve seen similar growth in the number of people discussing the need for captioning of Internet videos on various listservs for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Many people have told me that the Internet has become their primary source of news, and that because video is not routinely captioned, they feel shut out. Others fret about their inability to enjoy its growing entertainment opportunities.

Laws and Internet Captioning

The one law applicable to captioning on the Internet is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. But this law applies only to federal agencies and agencies supported by federal money. If the federal government is providing video information on the Internet — to employees or the public — it must have text.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the responsibility for enforcing the Telecommunications Act of 1996. There are separate regulations for TV captioning and for providing visual information in emergencies. But even though both new and old television programs are now becoming available on the Internet, there is no requirement that they be captioned. The FCC does not have jurisdiction over the Internet.

Consumer organizations for deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened and deaf-blind individuals have been pushing for a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act that would mandate accessibility on the Internet. Testimony has been presented to Congress by Karen Peltz Strauss and Dr. Frank Bowe during the past year.

American Online’s Pioneering Work

American Online (AOL) was the recipient of a 2005 NVRC Recognition Award for its outstanding leadership in making its programs and services accessible. Among the accomplishments cited were its “Princess Natasha,” the first online cartoon series for kids to have captioning, and the first streaming video newscasts with captions. AOL has continued to commit staff and conduct research to resolve problems that hold back captioning of video on its website at www.aol.com. Last year, aol.com had the second highest traffic of all the websites on the Internet.

We’re not the only organization recognizing AOL’s work. It has received awards from Hearing Loss Association of America, National Association of the Deaf, and Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching AOL’s progress as a member of its Advisory Committees which focuses on disability-related services. Other current members of the committee are Nancy Bloch, Executive Director of the National Association of the Deaf; Claude Stout, Executive Director of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; and Joe Gordon, Advocate Extraordinaire of the League for the Hard of Hearing.

Challenges to Internet Captioning

I talked recently with Tom Wlodkowski, Director of Accessiblity at America Online. He shared with me some of the challenges faced by AOL in its effort to increase captioning:

– Broadcast networks have Internet production units that prepare programs for streaming to the Internet before they are captioned. Most of the captioning happens in realtime as part of a TV newscast.

– There is no central database to locate a program’s captioning files. Finding captions for programs that have already been shown, including shows that were captioned many years ago, can involve a real hunt to locate the captioning agency that did the original work.

– AOL has a partnership with the same broadcast networks and other providers. Other companies with websites also have similar partnerships. Unfortunately, there is no common protocol for delivering text to Internet websites. As an example, one provider might use Windows Media and another Real Media.

Bob Sullivan Brings Media Attention

I have worked with NVRC News reader Jamie Berke for more than 15 years on captioning issues. She has a great skill at finding resources, and she’s a fierce advocate. Her web page at http://deafness.about.com has lots of good information, and she runs a website on captioning at www.captions.org. Recently Jamie has been working to educate media people about the need for captioned video on the Internet.

Bob Sullivan writes a blog called the Red Tape Chronicles for MSNBC, an effort “to unmask government bureaucracy, corporate sneakiness, and outright scam artists”. He wrote “Net Video Leaves the Deaf Behind,” in which Jamie was quoted, on March 3, 2006 (http://redtape.msnbc.com/2006/03/nocaptionsnet.html). He also quotes Gallaudet student Sonny Wasilowski, who has touched on web captioning at his blog (http://sonnjames.blogspot.com). Sullivan mentions resources such as the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH (http://ncam.wgbh.org), which has assisted AOL in its video captioning, and Speche Communications (www.speche.com/), which provides realtime streaming text services for webcasts.

Since Sullivan’s blog appeared, he’s added 68 comments received from readers. Several said that the whole problem could be solved with interpreters onscreen or everybody learning American Sign Language. One writer said, “I think this whole thing is crazy. No website should have to put captions on thier vidoes.” (His typos, not mine). Another said, “The internet (or whatever it evolves to) will be the primary means of communication in the future. And yes, deaf people are entitled to access it.”

(c)2006 by Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC), 3951 Pender Drive, Suite 130, Fairfax, VA 22030; www.nvrc.org. Items in this newsletter are provided for information purposes only; NVRC does not endorse products or services. You do not need permission to share this information, but please be sure to credit NVRC.