By Shari Eberts
The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, and people with hearing loss are no exception. Communication moved behind masks and online, taking away our superpower—speechreading—and increasing the social isolation we already feel.
For most people, video conference calls have been a great way to stay connected with friends and family, but for people with hearing loss, it is not as easy as it sounds. Poor audio quality and weak internet connections create a mismatch between sound and lip movements, making speechreading difficult, especially if discussions involve more than one person.
Captions could change all that. The gold standard of captioning is Communication Access Realtime Translation or CART, where a live transcriber types what is spoken in real-time, but technology is rapidly catching up and now a handful of high-quality automatic speech recognition (ASR) options do exist.
While CART is best for educational and other formal settings, an ASR alternative can be acceptable for many personal communications. Unfortunately, Zoom, the most popular video conferencing platform, keeps its auto caption capabilities hidden behind an expensive paywall, making them difficult for most people with hearing loss to access.
CAPTIONS ARE OUR RAMPS
Captions are a valuable service so why shouldn't people with hearing loss be willing to pay for them? The answer is clear. You would never construct a building, include ramps but then ask wheelchair users to pay to access them. The same holds for people with hearing loss. Captions are our ramps. We should not have to pay to use the feature we require for equal access.
At the start of the pandemic, I started a petition asking videoconferencing companies like Zoom and Google to provide free access to auto-captioning for people with hearing loss. Quickly thereafter, Google made its ASR captions available for all users without a fee. About a month later Microsoft did the same. Only Zoom has not.
LACK OF CAPTIONS TAKES AN EMOTIONAL TOLL
The lack of ASR captions on Zoom has taken an emotional toll on people with hearing loss during the pandemic, keeping us isolated not only in person but also when trying to connect with family and friends online. While people with hearing loss, come in all ages, shapes, and sizes, many are seniors who live alone. The isolation and sadness can be overwhelming, especially during the holidays.
The comments on the petition demonstrate how critical this issue is to the hearing loss community.
“People who are deaf and hard of hearing deserve to have access."
“I am unable to pay extra money to get captions. ASR that is included would be a game-changer for many of us. Please!"
“I need captioning to understand missing words. Imagine participating in a conference in a foreign language. How much would you understand? This is how I hear English."
“It's absolutely essential that everyone has access to communication methods that support their participation in everyday life. Captions make it possible to more fully participate."
“In this time of quarantine, it's essential that people with hearing loss receive information and support they need. So many of us are relying on Zoom and other platforms to communicate with friends and families, but without assistance, those with hearing loss are at an extreme disadvantage. Please move ahead ASAP to provide the help that's needed."
HOW CAN THE AUDIOLOGIST COMMUNITY HELP?
Audiologists are an important voice in validating the concerns of their patients with hearing loss. How can the audiologist community help promote equal communication access for people with hearing loss? There are many options.
- Sign and share the petition to show your support for free ASR captions for people with hearing loss on video conferencing platforms, including Zoom.
- Educate patients about alternative captioning methods like speech-to-text apps.
- Use platforms with free ASR captioning for telehealth appointments.
- Advocate with government and business leaders to promote communication access for people with hearing loss.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shari Eberts is a hearing health advocate, writer, and the founder of Living With Hearing Loss, a blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus. She also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Her E-book, Person-centered Care from the Patient's Perspective, details her experiences living with hearing loss and shares tips audiologists can use to make their practices more person-centered. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.