We want captions, yes we do

Try this for me. Turn off your sound. Then, for the next few minutes, perhaps 5, I would like you to actually do the following rather than imagine it: go to YouTube and watch a video or two without sound. Choose at least one that has auto-generated captions. Go on, this post won’t be going anywhere.

[sips his coffee]
[sips more coffee][looks at coffee, shrugs, and drinks the entire cup in one go]
[notices you’re back]

Oh! Excuse me.

Well, how was that? I bet you missed out on a lot of information, unless you’re some kind of whiz lip-reader.

You got just a little taste of what a deaf person faces when wanting to watch a video online. Yet if you’re hearing, you can go back and watch that with the sound on, so it’s not exactly the same.

So many videos online, and so much is either not captioned or uses these auto-generated captions that rarely seem to work well. You know how people joke around about auto-correct on our phones? That’s what auto-generated captions often seem to be like. Here’s an example. I blurred the background because I don’t want to play a blame game here:

johnnysadface Yeah. “Arab bradbury wise.” That makes sense. Especially when preceded by “Xbox” by itself, which was the actual caption before this.

[deep sigh]
[deep wish for more coffee]

Before I launch into my soapbox speech about why videos need to be captioned, I’ll say this: I deeply appreciate it when anyone takes the time to caption a video properly. You are simply fantastic. Well, unless you’re a racist and it’s a hate video, then you’re not that fantastic BUT captioning it was a fantastic act.

I know there’s got to be a trillion videos on the internet by now, so I’m not personally expecting everyone should go back and caption all of these videos. I’d just love it if any new videos would be captioned.

“Yeah, right!” You say. “It’s not going to happen!”

Not overnight, no, but we can do better.

Here’s the thing. Laws have been passed about captioning online, so there are governmental organizations and companies such as major media outlets that are required to be making progress toward captioning all their online videos.

But wait, first…

[turns on the italics]

QUICK NOTE: Even though it’s not the focus of this article, the FCC has rules about captioning on TV as well. In a nutshell, captions must be accurate, synchronous with spoken words, complete, and properly placed on the screen. CLICK HERE for the full details.

[turns off the italics]

Now we return to our regular programming, online captioning.

Turns out that explaining the laws in relation to online captioning is complicated, because when the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, it didn’t mention online accessibility because that wasn’t yet an issue. No one had internet except for those who created it, and the military. We regular people had to wait until 1994 and that atrocious dial-up connection which somehow amazed us at the time. Funny how much things change.

Anyway, I’m certainly not an expert in this, so I consulted with an expert, a friend who is an ADA coordinator for a large city.

In a nutshell, some key points she made:

  • Opinions are divided on whether a website needs to have a brick-and-mortar location in order to be considered a place of public accommodation, which Title III of the ADA would cover.
  • Companies that have been sued are settling out of court, so that doesn’t help in the way that a court ruling would.
  • The FCC hasn’t finished developing regulations and the Access Board is still working on their own guidelines, so we don’t yet have that added support for our access.
  • There’s been more success with students in higher education winning lawsuits against their Universities.

Alright, now let’s put the law over there in the corner, because I am not writing this post to try and convince the large companies to do what they usually can afford to do, but don’t. I don’t feel a post by me is going to convince them to do something they already know they should.

My fantastic and informative friend had a couple of excellent points to add for why everyone else should caption, for those who care about getting traffic:

  • Sites like Facebook automatically play videos in a News Feed without sound, so captions will grab a viewer’s interest more quickly.
  • Captioning positively impacts your Search Engine Optimization, for all you SEO-lovers out there. If you know how to buy backlinks – you understand it’s not difficult to tell the difference in quality between proper, natural content backlinks and some Fiverr gig.
  • You get more re-shares because of this, and deaf folks get more access. Talk about a win-win situation!

I asked some of my blogger friends who also do videos what their reasons were for not captioning, so I could address those. It essentially boiled down to two issues: Not knowing how and not taking the time to do it. So let me touch base on these two issues.


It’s okay. I don’t judge. There was a time when everyone who captions now didn’t know how to caption. We serve no one if we’re too critical. Captioning can be a tedious task at time, so I suggest you try to approach it with a service-oriented mindset. Find some way to enjoy it, perhaps finding peace in the act. After all, it’s better than things like paying your bills, right?

Three primary ways I’m personally familiar with captioning a video: through the video program itself, through YouTube, and through a website such as I’m going to go ahead an recommend that you use YouTube or another website to create a subtitle file. This allows for the captions to be optional. I do love open captions, but I know not everyone wants captions, so turning them on and off is a good option.

YouTube seems to have made it easier than ever to create captions for your videos. CLICK HERE for some easy instructions. I even noticed that you can let community members submit subtitle files to you, which is fantastic.

The only drawback I see with captioning this way is that it seems geared to line up the captions with whatever voice it ‘hears” but it won’t recognize signs, obviously, so it didn’t work with an ASL vlog when I tried it.

There are other websites, but is as good as any I have seen if you want to create a subtitle file elsewhere. Visit the website, create a free account, and just give it a try. It’s fairly simple and they’ve got instructions you can follow.You would then go back to YouTube to upload the subtitle file to your video through the Video Manager.

So you may not know how right now, but after a little time on or another website, you will know how. You’ll have a new skill, and that skill is making communication more accessible for us.


Maybe you don’t have the time or maybe you don’t make the time. I don’t know which it really is, because I’m not you. I’m going to simply ask that you try to make the time. Remember the benefits that it has for you, drawing more traffic to your videos.

I’m asking you to make the time for us. We’re out here, in the real world, sitting in front of our laptops or holding our phones and tablets, finding your videos. We see the promise of something good, something entertaining, something that may make us laugh or cry, and we’re confronted by this unexpected wall of “Captions Not Available” popping up on the screen or an absolute lack of a CC button.

Or we see a CC button and our hopes rise for a moment, but then crash to the ground when we see that the captions are auto-generated.

I think we deserve better.

I think you do, too.

There may come a day when it’s not just me, but you, that needs to rely on captions. Perhaps you lose your hearing from age, or because you drove too many race cars, or you went to too many concerts, or you turned the volume up on your iPod much too often.

Let’s just try to make this online world more accessible. It’s a beautiful goal. It’s a doable goal. We won’t get there overnight, but we can get there click by click, one video at a time.


J. Parrish Lewis was born and raised in Maryland. In his youth there, he and his brother had many adventures in the dogwood forests near his home. His nostalgia for these adventures has strongly influenced his characters, their relationships, and their perspective on the world they inhabit. He moved to California’s coast to earn his degree in communications and now lives with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. Lewis is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He enjoys hazelnut coffee, captioned movies, and walking his dog.


  • Ellen C Hayes

    Hey…love your articles! I am an interpreter and my husband works in broadcasting. He wants me to forward your link to this article…okay? He enjoyed it a lot. One thing he said, “Open captioning on the Internet does not meet and cannot meet the same standards, functions and quality as closed captioning does on broadcasting”. I.e., you can adjust the size and color of closed caption on televisions. You cannot do that with open captioning as they are burned onto the video. You cannot open caption something and say “hey! We have met our requirements of the FCC rules”. This is how lawyers interpret the existing FCC caption rules.

  • Gail

    Great article, I am mostly deaf from Menieres & I am an Education Assistant in a high school. I have suggested to teachers that they use captioning for the few who have hearing issues ( & myself ) & I was stared at , eyes glazed over & I was told ” nobody likes those annoying things” . I have worked in classrooms where teachers refused to wear FM headsets for hearing impaired students. There is MUCH education that needs to happen about accessibility in schools & entertainment. I guess the challenge is that it is an invisible disability.
    Captions rule! I love them & if I don’t have them I will get up & walk away.
    Thank you for your writing.I appreciate it.

  • Michele Linder

    Thanks for this article! Many of us work daily to forward the captioning movement through advocacy, on a personal and community level, and by adding our voice in collaboration with others just like us who want and need to see speech through captions on more worldwide level. What I find in being a captioning advocate is that you have to do it over and over and over again. Many people and organizations are grossly ignorant where captioning is concerned, and they are also resistant to anything that might cause them a bit less change in their pocket, but any argument is bunk, in my book. My most effective comeback: If you lost your hearing tomorrow captioning is what you would want. It allows you to remain independent and connected, and it also allows you to participate and contribute. When you look at captioning and no longer focus on how much it’s going to cost you, and rather see what a great investment it is, then you’ll “get” it.

    In addition, as you said, there are many more reasons to include captions than just for those who are deaf or have hearing loss. Captioning aids in language translation, it’s a tool for those learning a language as a second language and for remedial readers. Captioning makes it easy to enable downloadable transcripts that are often used as study aids. Captioning allows for viewing in sound sensitive environments, not to mention the SEO, Video View and Search benefits.

    Yeah, I like to talk about captioning and I work hard to make it more mainstream. I hope many others will join this bandwagon. :o) ~~Michele

  • ajw

    Auto captions, in my experience, work really great on videos that have no background noise, and one person speaking clearly and with good diction. I suspect they have secretly improved quite a bit since that time when everyone had fun about how bad they were etc.

    I have had great help from auto captions on videos that I wouldn’t have been able to watch otherwise.

    And before people accuse me of working for the Google PR dept: I will concede that auto-generated captions are not perfect, and they still have a way to go on videos with background noise, unclear speech etc. Manual captions are still needed on many videos! I just wanted to make the point that they are not terrible anymore, just bad! :p

    To repeat myself: I am NOT saying that auto captions are good enough for most videos. Manual captions are still needed and very important!!!

    • J. Parrish Lewis

      That hasn’t been my experience so far, but I would be thrilled if auto-generated captions did improve on the videos I watch. I think it’s easier to ask people to caption their videos than to ask them to speak more clearly and check their background noise. Perhaps Google should communicate with Cochlear America on how to screen out the background to focus on human voices, since that’s something the CI does to some degree.

      Thanks for the comment!

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