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Closed Captioning

kyhong's picture

I often turn on subtitles/closed captioning when watching videos as it makes it easier for me to comprehend what is happening (I find it easier to absorb something through reading versus listening alone). Although I knew they were not always the best at capturing what was said, especially when it comes to dialects other than General American English, I never thought about how even when they are "technically correct," the closed captions are still inaccessible.

Artist Christine Sun Kim highlights this inaccessibility by examining the closed captioning for music. She notes that they merely state "music," which doesn't describe what instruments are being played in the piece and what mood or tone it is trying to set. It's like when you're watching a movie, and when two Korean people are speaking to each other, the subtitles say, "speaking foreign language." It doesn't tell you what words are being exchanged. Whether they are spoken out of excitement, grief, or anger. The situational and cultural reasoning behind the conversation being brought up in the first place.

In addition, even if the closed captioning includes all of this, it's mainly through a nondisabled person's perspective. Kim challenges this by showing how music is not solely experienced through auditory means with examples like "the sound of strong exhaustion" and "the sound of temperature slowly dropping."

As a side note, I find it a bit ironic that in the "How Architecture Changes for the Deaf" video by Vox, the closed captioning does not mention the kind of music playing in the background.


Maya A.'s picture

Hi Katherine! Similar to you, I also frequently turn on subtitles when I'm watching videos to make it easier for me to process what's happening but didn't realize prior to Christine Sun Kim's video how inaccessible captions can be even when they're "correct." Music is often partially an emotional and imaginative experience for me, so I really like how her closed captioning captures that more immersive/ not just auditory experience. 

Your post also got me thinking about creativity not just in the content of captions themselves but also in the way they're displayed. Captions in general are usually plain white text on a black background, a design that increases visibility but can sometimes feel boring/ like it doesn't match the visual tone or style of the video. However, I’ve seen some cool YouTube community captions designed to match the style of the visuals and/or audio of music videos that do a lot of cool experimentation with text size, font, color, placement, etc. I’ve seen some subtitles that actually shake, appear letter by letter, and move around the screen. One simpler example is the English captions for Rain with Cappuccino by Yorushika (flash warning), which change colors along with the background. These kinds of captions can be harder to read/process and thus be less accessible, so they're certainly not perfect, but I think they open up new ways of thinking about how we can make closed captioning (and access in general) feel less like just an add-on and more like part of the art itself.

To add another note to your note about "How Architecture Changes for the Deaf," I realized after I saw a couple commenters mentioning it that the video often cuts away from Derrick Behm as they're mid-signing. The audio narration and captions continue what Behm was saying, but it forces Deaf viewers who were watching him sign to switch to captions when it cuts away. One commenter said that for hearing people, it'd be like watching a video where the audio keeps randomly cutting out.