The Benefits of Captions

Many accessibility efforts to make information more accessible to users with disabilities provide benefits to all users. Calling out these benefits can lead to a decision for accessibility in spite of the benefits provided to users with disabilities. Captions are a great example,here are a few lists outlining some of those:

Even if you are a callous jerk who doesn’t care about the 3.5% of the general population who are deaf or hard of hearing, there are other benefits commonly cited in the above lists:

  • Increased usability for everyone.
  • Education and literacy benefits.
  • Increased search engine traffic.
  • Search captioned video to find specific video segments.
  • Access to audio information in a noisy environment.
  • Helpful in learning a second language.

Those all make a lot of sense, but I wanted to find some specific examples and research to back up those assertions. Here is what I found:

Increased Usability for Everyone

I don’t have hearing loss, but I always turn on captions when they are available and apparently I’m not along. In 2006, Ofcom (the regularity authority for the UK communications industries) published a report with the following blurb on the number of people who use subtitles:

In the UK adult population as a whole, over 7.5 million people (18%) are estimated to have used subtitling at least once, of whom over 6 million people would have no hearing impairment. 39% of those with a hearing impairment say that they have used it, equating to just over 1.4 million people. Amongst case study respondents with a hearing impairment, 49% said that they used it to watch all, most or some programmes, a figure that rose to 76% for those with a severe or profound hearing loss. (Section 2.20)

Muffled audio, thick accents or whatever– captions make audio easier to understand.

See Also: The hearing majority of captioning viewers from Joe Clark and WETA’s Captions Increase & Sustain Their Video Viewership from Peter Crosby at DotSUB.

Education and Literacy Benefits

I also try to turn captions on for my kids:

Increased search engine traffic

While these benefits may occasionally be overstated as not all captioned video is indexed by all search engines, there are definite SEO benefits from captioned video for at least some services/search engines. If nothing else, posting the video transcript with the video will ensure that your video content can be indexed by search engines.

We can only hope that as search engines take advantage of captions to deliver more relevant video content to users I hope it doesn’t lead to a rash of captioned videos of video spammers yelling about cheap online pharmaceuticals and work from home opportunities.

Search Captioned Video to Find Specific Video Segments

This video from Hulu demonstrates this idea very well (ironically, it’s uncaptioned):

You can try it out for yourself by doing to the Hulu Captions Search page.

On a completely unrelated sidenote, there is a great story of how the husband of a Deaf woman had a brother with a friend who was a programmer at Hulu helped to get captions rolling at Hulu.

You can also see this functionality at the DO-IT Video collection., CaptionBox is a jQuery plugin that allows you do add some of this functionality to videos on your site.

Access to Audio Information in a Noisy Environment

I’ve often heard the face that the most common use of captions is when they are turned on for televisions in a restaurant or gym. I looked pretty hard and can’t find any hard data to verify that assertion, but I know that I appreciate caption being turned on when I eat out. Unfortunately it’s been awhile since I’ve been to a gym so I can’t speak to that. Also, those children I mentioned earlier who I turn on captions for the educational benefits? There are four of them and they can be noisy- captions are a godsend when my wife and I are watching a show with the kiddos in the room.

Helpful in Learning a Second Language

Here are a few academic articles on this topic with fancy words, complicated charts, the works:

That’s It

What did I miss?

Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education Update Session

Presentation from the 2011 CSUN Technology Conference.
Presenter: Gaeir Dietrich, Director of the High Tech Center Training Unit

Full Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education Update Session PowerPoint Presentation available here

Background on the Commission

The Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities was established under the Higher Education Opportunity Act and they held their first meeting on September 27, 2010.

The basic goal of the commission is to:

indentify ways to improve the opportunities for postsecondary students with print disabilities to access instructional materials in a comparable timeframe as the instructional materials for nondisabled students.

The commission is working to identify barriers and systemic issues as well as consider technical solutions. However, Gaeir acknowledged that whatever solutions exist today will likely not be the solution three years from now. As an example, the California Assembly Bill 422 passed in 1999 requires publishers to provide electronic text for students with disabilities for certain colleges and universities in ASCII format (no bold, italics or other formatting).

Six Areas the Commission is Considering

Accessible Formats With Comparable Timeframe and Costs

How students with print disabilities may obtain instructional materials in accessible formats within a comparable timeframe and at costs comparable to the costs of such materials for nondisabled students.

Feasibility of Standards

The feasibility and technical parameters of establishing standardized electronic file formats to be provided by publishers of instructional materials to producers of materials in accessible formats, institutions of higher education, and eligible students.

National Clearinghouse

The feasibility of establishing a national clearinghouse, repository, or file-sharing network for electronic files used in producing instructional materials in accessible formats, and a list of possible entitites qualified to adminiser such a clearinghouse, repository, or network.

Market-based Solutions

The feasibility of establishing market-based solutions involving collaborations among publishers of instructional materials, producers of materials in accessible formats, and institutions of higher education.

Universal Design

Solutions utilizing universal design.

Low Incident, High Cost Materials

Solutions for low-incidence, high-cost requests for instructional materials in accessible formats.

Four Task Forces

Gaeir was clear that they are still early in the process and the ideas express are simply a snapshot of their current thinking.

Task Force One

Led by Tuck Tinsley of the American Printing House for the Blind.

This task force is considering high-cost & low-incidence materials such as braille and tactile graphics as well as instructional materials in the areas of:

  • science,
  • technology,
  • engineering,
  • mathematics,
  • foreign languages, and
  • graduate studies.

They are also considering best practices, the definition of print disability (based on functional limitations) and the definition of instructional materials. Their report will include current data that shows that approximately 1% of all students have some type of print disability.

Task Force Two

Led by Jim Fructerman from Bookshare and Benetch.

This task force is looking at technology Issues, the possibility of a file repository, a standardized format and a federated search.

This group so far has recommended that it is not feasible to recommend a standardized file format. However, they are recommending a single repository and they do recommend a federated search to consolidate data and adding metadata to files pertaining to accessibility.

Task Force Three

Led by George Kerscher of the DAISY Consortium and the RFB&D

This task force is looking at market model solutions, E-pub and DAISY formats, Web solutions, Open Educational Resources (OER), Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Considering the market model solutions, they are looking to find where market needs and the needs of users with disabilities overlap. Gaeir mentioned the example of text messaging that is replacing TTY services for many people.

Task Force Four

Led by Maria Pallante of the Copright Office

They are looking at the legal framework, copyright, the Chafee Amendment, the Americans with Disabilites Act and Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act, and State Higher Education E-text laws.

There are difficult issues to resolve in this area, but they are feeling that any rework of copyright will not pass the legislature. They are looking at how there can be an appropriate balance between copyright law and civil rights law. Because the exceptions under the Chaffee Amendment require that a learning disability be organic based, they are also working on providing guidelines that include current brain research on the organic basis of learning disabilities.

Wrap Up

Gaier is really excited about DAISY, but she mentioned that most students are still requesting Word or MP3 files in postsecondary settings because those are the formats that they are used to. She feels like this will change as the younger generation grows up using DAISY.

The commission is planning on having a rough draft of their report at the AHEAD Conference in July.

Anyone can receive public updates by sending an email to with the word ‘subscribe’ in the subject line.

Related Links

CSUN Keynote Panel on International Accessibility and Information and Communication Technology

The next few days I’ll be posting some notes from the California State University Northridge (CSUN) 26th Annual International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference.

Tonight the keynote panel that was moderated by Mike Paciello and included Paul P. Schafer, Mohammed Al-Tarawneh and Axel Leblois. You can read the full bios for Paul, Mohammed and Axel on the conference website. The theme of the panel was an international perspective on closing the gap between assistive technology and information and communication technologies (ICT).

The State of International Accessibility and ICT

To start the discussion, Axel responded to Mike’s question on the state of international accessibility by stating that we are in an unprecended period of growth of technology and devices, citing statistics that there 5 billion mobile phones, 2.5 billion televisions, 1.2 billion personal computers and 1.6 billion Internet users.

Axel then discussed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and mentioned that 99 countries have already ratified it. Mohammed expressed a hope that the United States will soon become the 100th to ratify the treaty and Paul reported from conversation with Judy Huemann that the treaty would soon be going to the US senate.

International Accessibility and ICT Challenges

Mohammed discussed the challenges of the CRPD and how those challenges affect ICT. He said that there is a gap between developed and developing countries. He hopes that countries with the resources and expertise will offer needed financial, technical, education assistance to developing countries.

Axel discussed the problem that although there is much research happening in the area of assitive technology, little of the research done at universities actually makes it to market. Lots of money is being spent on that research that never ends up benefitting end users.

Paul mentioned another issue is that the cost of assistive technology in 3rd world countries is still to expensive, but expressed hope that as mainstream products such as Android devices become accessible they will eventually help assistive technology become more affordable.

Solutions to International ICT Accessibility Problems

Looking forward, Paul felt that some solutions to increasing access to ICT might be the mass market utilization of technologies such as text-to-speech (TTS), speech recognition and brain-computer interfaces (BCI). He also sees potential for assistive technology cloud services. Paul also emphasized the importance of sharing best practices- both in technology and business processes. He discussed the importance sucessfull businesses mentoring others with the goal of getting more accessible practices into off-the-shelf products to replae more expensive, proprietary solutions.

Mohammed said that the CRPD is a powerful legal instrument that binds member states to abide by every single article, but that some member states are unaware of all obligations that signing the treaty brings. He is hopeful that academic institutions, the private sector, civil society organizations and governments will work together to help those in developing countries who lack resources.

One of the areas where Axel has seen success is working on the “low hanging fruit” of accessibility of telephones and televison broadcasting in developing countries. Often there is an FCC-like organization that simply needs training of what they need to do to be more accessible. He also discussed the business value of assitive technologies in expanding markets such as mobile and cloud-based solutions.

Other Keynote Business

After the panel, Alan D. Muir received the the Fred Strache Leadership Award and Klaus Miesenberer received 2011 Trace Center’s Harry J. Murphy Catalyst Award. In his acceptance speech Klaus shared a chinese proverb that went something like this:

“If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk.
If you want to be happy for a month, slaughter a pig
If you want to be happy for a year, get married
If you want to be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden”

If you have an additions or corrections to the above, please let me know!

Access Means Different Things to Different People

“’Access’ isn’t just yes or no, but really shades of accessibility, and has different dimesions.” (Access to Open Educational Resources Wiki)

The definition of access from Merriam-Webster:

a: permission, liberty, or ability to enter, approach, or pass to and from a place or to approach or communicate with a person or thing b: freedom or ability to obtain or make use of something c: a way or means of access d: the act or an instance of accessing

Depending on who you are or where you are at in life, the word access has different meanings. UNESCO has a fantastic wiki page on Access to Open Educational Resources where they define a number of different types of access. Although written for a specific type of content (open educational resources), the types of access they have identified can be applied generally :

  • Awareness, Policy, Attitude, Cultural:
    • Access in terms of awareness.
    • Access in terms of local policy/attitude.
    • Access in terms of languages.
  • Legal
    • Access in terms of licensing.
  • Technical (Delivery Method)
    • Access in terms of file formats.
    • Access in terms of disability.
  • Technical (Receiving)
    • Access in terms of infrastructure.
    • Access in terms of internet connectivity/bandwidth.
    • Access in terms of discovery.
    • Access in terms of ability and skills.

Reading through the comments on the page, it is evident that in many parts of the world, access for users with disabilities is a secondary concern (at best). Without power, bandwidth or an even an Internet connnection no content cannot be accessed, so who care if is it accessible to users with disabilities?

When considering all of the different barriers that keep people from accessing content on the Internet, all of the sudden adding alternative text to an image doesn’t feel like such a big deal. Let’s keep working on an accessible web, but in the meantime let’s not forget that lots of people don’t have access to that content whether it is “accessible” or not.

Via Stephen Downes

Also of Interest

Avoiding the Gray Areas

I just caught the last of Shawn Henry’s SXSW panel. Key takeway- there are white areas of things that are good to do for accessibility and black areas of things that are bad for accessibility- avoid worrying about the gray area in the middle. She mentioned the ability of web accessibility experts to endlessly debate the ins and outs of alt text. For example:

These discussions are helpful and essential for establishing best practices. However, these discussions are harmful to the extent that a developer becomes tied up arguing about “gray areas” instead of building accessible content.

Online Video Captions

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL have announced their participation in the Internet Captioning Forum (ICF) established to promote the use of captioning for online video. They will be working with the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at WGBH Boston. You can read quotes from Vint Cerf and other representatives from each of the big four at the National Center for Technology Innovation regarding the effort.

I am neither deaf or hard or hearing, but the captions are almost always on when the television is on in our home. I enjoy the viewing experience and miss fewer words mumbled here and there when I can look down and glance at the words when needed.

Google video currently provides detailed instructions on adding captioning to videos. Additionally, in the Google Video Help Center, this questions is asked, “Do you generate captions/subtitles for my video?” and the answer they provide is a promising “Not at this time.” They also have a section where you can view examples of captioned videos.

NCAM Press Release

(hat tip: The Assistive Technology Blog)

Using Symbols to Access the Web

Picture of the Webwide Browser

From the AT TechNET @ VCU: Assistive Technology Blog, a link to Communicate: Webwide, the first symbol-supported web browser. Everything happens in the browser where you can view pages in normal view, with plain text or using symbols. Their icon library contains over 29,000 words. It also reads any text that you highlight.

Is this type of technology the answer for some users with cognitive disabilities? What about a potential user who can’t access your material even when you have gone great lengths to simplify your writing. Also, while individual sites may provide their own visual elements to represent different ideas, is their value is having a standard set of icons? Perhaps the ideas would be to allow users to associate symbols with the words themselves, or at least have the option to override the default icon.

Communicate: Webwide is provided on a subscription model and is PC-only (30-day demo available).

Does it work with any site? Probably not, from their guidelines:

While Webwide interprets clear, well-written HTML; some layouts and styles will be more effective than others. To this end, we will be producing guidelines for web designers who would like to make their information accessible through Webwide.

Hopefully their guidelines are in line with already established web standards and guidelines.

Read Speaker

A server-based product that reads the text on a website and requires no plugin. It also reads Word, RTF and PDF documents. You can try the service out by clicking on the ‘SayIt’ botton on the ReadSpeaker site. From their website:

The Mission of ReadSpeaker is to make the “miracle of the Internet” accessible for dyslexics, people with learning disabilities, low literacy level, people with English as a second language, elderly with impaired vision and others that like to listen as well as read.

I’m not quite sold on their claim that “ReadSpeaker will make your website accessible for more people than any other accessibility measurement that you put in place,” but I don’t suppose it could hurt. Fortunately they do recommend that you follow the W3C/WAI guidelines as well. I couldn’t find any pricing information, but you can contact them for a free trial and price quote


Facts and Opinions About PDF Accessibility from A List Apart 4.0

As mentioned all around the horn tonight A List Apart is back with a new design and a great new article from Joe Clark appropriately called Facts and Opinions About PDF Accessibility.

Towards the beginning of the article he sets the first point of his summary:

Most PDFs on the web should be HTML

However, he then lists 14 instances where PDF may well be the appropriate file format. The article also goes on to debunk some popular myths surrounding PDF, explains how they can be made more accessible and an informative overview of how PDF files are handled by three popular screen readers (JAWS, Window-Eyes and Home Page Reader). Also, don’t miss out on the discussion.

Text to Speech Software and Voices

I’m trying understand a little more about Text to Speech technologies, and and came across a couple of helpful links: a Speech synthesis page from Wikipedia and a Text-to-Speech page at SNOW. It appears there are a number of different text to speech software packages available.

The issue seems to be further complicated in that at least some of the software/voice packages appear to require a license based on how many times a user distributes a voice recording.

My last concern is how to select a voice to use- it looks like a number of different options available. To save you some time, if you are looking for IBM’s natural voices the first page I came across was their AT&T Text to Speech Research Lab which took me to their official AT&T Natural Voices page and from there to Wizzard Software where you can actually purchase a product- although I still wasn’t sure exactly what…

Anyways, I am looking for some help on this one- does anyone know of any good resources, have a favorite piece of software of favorite voice? If not, I don’t know how updated this is, but it looks like a good place to start.

As a sidenote, I wasn’t even aware of the W3C Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) – looks really interesting.