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Captioning/subtitles for the deaf

What is captioning? Where and why is it used? If you are deaf or hearing impaired, closed captions, or subtitles, can enhance the experience whether you are watching television, you are at the movies, at the theatre, in an aircraft or airport, hospital, shopping mall or on the internet. No matter the kind of hearing devices you wear captioning can help understanding for many people. There are even noisy environments where captioning can benefit people with full hearing.

In the USA by mid-1993 all new large television sets were required to have caption decoding capabilities. However, in Australia this wasn’t the case. Captioning was a hard fought battle by some very dedicated people and did not become law for prime time free to air broadcasts until 2001. Cable television, only introduced into Australia in the mid 90’s, still doesn’t have a lot of captions.

There are two kinds of captioning. (1) Pre-captioned and (2) Live captioned (real-time captioning).

(1) Pre-captioned programs are filmed and later the captions embedded in the medium (film, DVD etc). Programs captioned this way are not broadcast at the time they are being filmed and so captions usually match the exact timing of the sound track. Captions can be in any number of languages including for the deaf and hearing impaired. Captioning for the deaf and hearing impaired is different to captioning in (say) English, because it includes clues to environmental sounds. Such things a ‘telephone rings’ or ‘door slams’ as well as lyrics to music will be included.

(2) Live captioning requires that someone caption the commentary as it is broadcast. This type of captioning is used on television for news, current affairs, sports commentaries and some entertainment programs. It is also partly used for live theatre, often from a remote location. Live theatre uses some pre-captioning of the script but adds live captioning to catch ad-libs and (god forbid) errors!! For live captioning, the captioner must wait to hear what is said and then code comments. This can result in a lag or delay between the sound and when captions appear on the screen and can also mean errors in captioning which are very hard to fix in real time. Some live programs are later edited and become pre-captioned, for re-broadcast.

Captioning has often not been very good. Captions received on analogue television were often very temperamental. The caption signal was sent separately to the picture which often resulted in a synchronisation problem, caption drop out or caption ghosting. Analogue television is currently being phased out in Australia and many homes, even if they don’t have digital television, have ‘digital set top boxes’ which receive the digital signal and display it on an analogue television set.

Digital television, whether using a set-top box/analogue television or a fully digital television, is so much better for those of us who want captions. Benefits include:
• Watching television with perfect closed captions. The digital signal delivers captions perfectly every time (provided they are being sent perfectly).
• You can switch channels without switching captions off and captions are immediately viewed on the new selected channel without the need to switch them on.
• Many set top boxes allow you to record digital television straight to your computer or a hard drive. Closed captions are part of the digital signal so even if you record a television program without captions displayed you can still turn them on for the playback. However, apparently this is not a function of every set-top box so check out the specifications before you buy if you want this feature.

Captioning in other venues is still being campaigned for. Recently in the US a hospital added captioning and remote interpreters as options for patients. In Australia captioning in movies is still quite rare depending on the city in which you live. Theatre captioning is coming but again it does depend on the city where you live.

Airlines have recognised the efficacy of captioning because many of their travellers do not speak English. This means individual screens on aircraft, especially long haul flights, allow you to flick through the selection of movies until you find one with captions in your language. However, since captions aren’t available on every movie you may not get to see the movie of your choice.

Captioned radio is being trialled in the US, while the Internet and mobile phones are playing catch up. Even if a television program is captioned for broadcast on television it is often not captioned if available on the internet. There is a move to change this.

It has always surprised me that with today’s technologies, I can walk into a local food hall at the shopping centre and find many television sets featuring different stations yet there is no captioning. Food Halls are loud and noisy places and even the fully hearing cannot hear the sound tracks. So why don’t these places use captions?

It is my opinion that captions need to become an automatic part of any medium for all entertainment types. The technology is there. It’s not difficult or expensive to do any more and captioners do not even have to be at the location to provide live captioning. Captions can benefit the deaf, the hearing impaired, people for whom the language being spoken at this place is not their first language as well as the fully hearing.

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