British Columbia·Opinion

Screen captions aren't just nice to have. They're critical for millions of Canadians with hearing loss

Roberta McDonald argues that organizations that make a profit from online seminars should be inclusive of people with hearing loss.

Event organizers must be more inclusive now that virtual gatherings are the norm

Roberta McDonald argues that organizations that make a profit from online seminars should be inclusive of people with hearing loss. (Roberta McDonald/Submitted)

This is an opinion column by Roberta McDonald, who has profound hearing loss. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I spend a lot of time staring at people's faces  not because I'm a creep, but because I rely heavily on lip reading and facial cues to gather information. 

As a person with profound hearing loss, I don't have access to 60 per cent of the sounds bouncing around the world on any given day. Instead, I study lip movements and search for emotional cues through a smile or stony frown. I wear hearing aids, but they're not perfect.

I'm far from alone. At least four million Canadians have some form of hearing loss, according to the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association. And it's not just seniors: six out of every 1,000 children also face some type of hearing loss

It might seem strange to say, but when the first lockdown forced much of our business communication online I was excited. 

After years of struggling with the concentration fatigue that comes with hyper-focusing on spoken words to keep up, I was looking forward to captioned events and the luxury of my quiet home background. I also needed a break from struggling with muffled voices through masks. 

But it became clear within weeks that communication was about to get harder. 

Colleagues with a poor Internet connection would blur out or stop in mid-sentence, and many turned cameras off on group calls so I would stare at their name in white letters, trying to snatch snippets of what they said. Transcripts of meetings at the busy non-profit where I worked weren't common yet, so I scribbled notes and reached out through chat afterwards to catch up. 

But I was exhausted. I moved on to other work in June and it was a relief. 

Now that online events are the norm, I sign up to webinars and panel discussions to gather more information on a variety of issues, some of them complex and nuanced.  A speaker may use a slide deck to highlight statistics and key points, but the ideas they're sharing over audio are often spoken too quickly and without seeing their face I inevitably miss out. 

Some events feature other attendees in a sort of Brady Bunch wall cube on steroids, which is cute but distracting and pulls my focus away from the speaker on screen. 

Some organizers are still choosing not to provide captions. When I asked a host at a recent event to repeat information, he declined and said a recording would be provided. (It was, without captions).

Roberta McDonald studies lip movements and body language to understand spoken language. Online communication because of the pandemic has made that more challenging. (Roberta McDonald/Submitted)

And that's the norm. Who actively enjoys repeating themselves? I get annoyed as much as the next person. But when I explain about my hearing loss and there is zero attempt at accommodation, my throat chokes with rage. I log off and vow never to pay for another of their events or services. 

I argue that organizations making a profit from online events must factor into account everyone's varying abilities. When I asked some organizers if captioning would be provided, they cited cost as a reason for not providing this "upgrade."

But captions aren't just nice to have, they're vital. Choosing not to have them is creating a barrier. After nine months of struggling to understand and participate in online events and meetings, I'm tired.

There is no shortage of captioning services and many of them are free or low cost. For those with business accounts, Microsoft Teams has live captioning included with the subscription and Google Meet is free for 60 minutes. Zoom has a more expensive paid option — in a partnership with voice-to-text service — that immediately transcribes content. Events with volunteers can designate someone to do live captioning via Zoom.

Since April, SFU Public Square, along with City Hive and SFU's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, has hosted Distant Not Disengaged, a series of dialogues with live captioning funded by a grant from the university. The Wavefront Centre, in addition to providing ASL interpreters, recently launched a captioning service.

As the long emergency of this global pandemic grinds into winter, there's an opportunity for organizations across all sectors to rethink how to run meetings and events and launch social media videos in ways that are accessible to everyone — not just those with the luxury of full hearing.

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