Closed Doors with no Closed Captions

Closed captioning/subtitles for Facebook videos and movies are an all-around good idea.

Yesterday, I was on a seven-hour cross-country flight, and as usual, I looked forward to watching a few movies to pass the time. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten my earphones, and, seeing none in the seat pocket, I asked a flight attendant if they had any extra. She replied that earphones were only for purchase.

I figured it wasn’t really worth the cost, so I decided to watch movies with closed captioning only. It would be enough to get the gist of the dialogue, even if I couldn’t hear the music or any sound effects.

To my dismay, not all of the movies that were offered on flight had closed captioning. I realized very soon that my choices were limited to just a handful of blockbusters and children’s movies. Although I didn’t check every single movie, my guess is that around ten to twenty percent of them had captions.

So I watched Wonder Woman, and it was great, and then I watched Logan, which was extremely violent but also great. But the problem with both of these is that they had some dialogue in non-English languages that wasn’t captioned. In Logan, one of the main characters is a Spanish-English bilingual, and when she spoke in English the captions were fine, but guess what showed up when she spoke in Spanish? “Laura: [SPEAKS SPANISH]”

I get that for English-only audiences it’s not intended for her words to be immediately understandable, but if I had been able to hear the Spanish I probably would’ve been able to decipher parts of it. So why couldn’t the captions have been provided in Spanish as well? It’s not hard to do that.

You may be wondering, “Andrew, what’s the big deal? You had to face this problem once on an airplane; just bring your earphones next time.”

The deal is that Deaf people face this problem every single day, not just when they go to a movie theater and find out that there are no captions for the latest blockbuster, but even when they watch videos going viral on Facebook or YouTube and literally have to guess at what’s being said because there are no captions, or because the captions are done sloppily.

Closed captioning makes movies and videos accessible for Deaf and hard of hearing people, and in fact it can be beneficial for the hearing majority, as well. If you don’t think it’s a problem, just imagine a world without earphones and ask yourself how accessible it would be.


Word of the Day: the vaquita is an endangered species of porpoise that is native to the Gulf of California. Its name is Spanish for “little cow”, and it looks like it wears black lipstick. It is estimated that there are fewer than twenty of them left alive in their natural habitat. The vaquita has literally nothing to do with this post, but I think it’s a cute word, so I want to share it, maybe raise a little bit of awareness of how close they are to extinction. (I went to YouTube to find videos about the vaquita, and now I’m wondering if any of them are captioned! YouTube does have a neat “auto-caption” feature that uses speech processing algorithms to generate captions for videos in English that otherwise don’t have them. It’s a good start, but not enough.)


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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