Words on screen: The importance of captions

For National Hearing Awareness week we look into something important to the deaf, hearing impaired and hard of hearing community — captions.

There’s a push for captions to become universal — that would mean all audio visual content created would have words on screen showing what is being said — making it accessible for everyone.

These could be open captions, or subtitles which are part of the content, or closed captions which are hidden unless decoded by a TV or other device.

One in six Australians is hard of hearing. And it’ll be one in four by 2050.

But it’s not just those people that stand to benefit from universal captioning.


  • Naomi Malone, PhD Candidate, University of Technology Sydney
  • Sarah Houbolt, Access and Inclusion Specialist, Equity and Diversity Unit, UTS
  • Alex French, CEO, The Captioning Studio


NAOMI MALONE: When I was studying Arts Law 20 years ago, I had to borrow notes from my friends, run across the lawn to the student centre, photocopy the notes. And run back across the lawn to return the notes to my friends.

LAURA CORRIGAN: This is Naomi Malone, she’s a PhD student at the University of Technology Sydney.

NAOMI MALONE: I am profoundly deaf. So that means I rely on Lip reading extensively to communicate to you. And I speak but I’ve been taught to speak having gone to the Shepherd Centre since I was 10 months old.

LAURA CORRIGAN: A lot has changed since Naomi’s first years of university, relying on friends to take notes for her. Now things are much more accessible.

With the help of captions, Naomi can access materials important to her studies. U-T-S provides somebody to sit with Naomi in lectures and type up what is being said.

NAOMI MALONE: A stenographer sits next to me and I have a laptop in front of me and the stenographer types away on a machine connected to the laptop and I read the captions. And that captures all the interactive discussions. That’s fantastic accessibility aid because it makes me feel included and not only that I can participate in interactive discussion.

LAURA CORRIGAN: UTS like most universities has a dedicated accessibility unit to improve students’ learning experience. There’s also a section of the library that provides accessible formats of learning materials.

But Naomi says she still occasionally comes across things she needs for her studies that don’t have captions.

SARAH HOUBOLT: My Name is Sarah Houbolt and I work in the Equity and Diversity Unit at UTS as the Accessibility specialist.

LAURA CORRIGAN: Sarah says captions are far from universal, but everyday things are becoming more and more accessible.

SARAH HOUBOLT: The United Nations convention on the rights of people with a disability came came into being in 2008 so in terms of our global understanding about accessibility, it’s very new. so when we come to questions of is there a long way to go, yes there is because it’s all still very new in terms of putting things into practice.

LAURA CORRIGAN: In fact captions aren’t just becoming more and more popular in education, you can see them popping up in daily life.

Alex French works providing captions for audio visual content, he’s the CEO of the Captioning Studio.  

He says captions are becoming more standard because not only are companies and education providers more aware of the needs of the hard of hearing — thanks to their years of lobbying. But they are also seeing the value they provide to a wider audience.

ALEX FRENCH: One in five households in Australia speak a language other than English at home. And people can often benefit by learning a language by actually reading it as well as actually hearing it at the same time. More recently there’s been a lot of research into captioning and people who are on the Autism spectrum and benefits they see in captions. And also people who have some learning difficulties as well. So there’s all sorts of research out there to show it benefits lots of people.

LAURA CORRIGAN: International students and even visual learners use captions if they’re provided in lecture presentations.

Naomi says all students can benefit from captions.

NAOMI MALONE: One example for the need for captions is the recent NSW Premier Literary Awards at the State Library of NSW, and it was captioned. And the feedback provided that those who could actually hear but who were sitting up the back were using captions to access the speeches that were being said. So it really benefits people who can hear.

LAURA CORRIGAN: I can hear, and I always find captions useful when I’m scrolling through Facebook on the train and I don’t want to disturb everyone around me by playing a video aloud.

So I wasn’t surprised when Alex said captioned videos on social media more popular than uncaptioned ones.

ALEX FRENCH: The research actually shows that even i an quiet environment, if someone is looking at their social media page, and they’re scrolling through, if they see something that has captions they’re more likely to actually click on that video and watch than if that video doesn’t have captions.

LAURA CORRIGAN: But despite the progress, Alex says captions aren’t going to become universal overnight.

ALEX FRENCH: Traditionally captions have been something that’s quite expensive to do. It’s a very intensive task. It takes about 8-10 hours per hour of video. But with new technology coming along, automatic transcription ad stuff like that. Everyone’s seen transcription on YouTube, it’s not always the god but. There’s an opportunity there to actually use automatic technology in a way that maybe we haven’t been able to do in the past.

LAURA CORRIGAN: Sarah, the accessibility specialist, agrees that captioning and transcribing can be time consuming and putting the procedures in place can be difficult.

She says one of the main barriers at universities is identifying who should be responsible for the captions.

But she says cost is a bad excuse for not captioning.

SARAH HOUBOLT: Sometimes people talk about cost as a factor, however under the disability education standards, and if you were taken to the Humans Rights Commission in terms of why captions weren’t provided. The practical decision making would say well actually universities don’t have the justification to use cost as a reason for not doing it.

LAURA CORRIGAN: Sarah says a universal access approach is the best way to look at captioning. Especially as  everyday new types content is created that all people will want to access.

SARAH HOUBOLT: So when we use a data arena for example or virtual reality products how do we put captions on there? When we’re talking about animations and new creative ways of displaying data visualisations, how do we make sure that any narratives that are said verbally we put the captions there.

LAURA CORRIGAN: Alex, the captioning professional, says the future is about adding even more value to captions, such as using them to search through content.

ALEX FRENCH: So we actually a few years ago started looking at developing a search engine that bases itself on using captioning. Using data we generate from people actually speaking within the audio, and turning that into search data that you can use. So our search engine allows you to search for a phrase across a whole collection of videos. So if it’s a university it might be all of their lecture content and then jump straight into a video at the point where the person says the words. So you can imagine how powerful that would be in terms of being able to access long pieces of media to just find the pieces that you’re really looking for.

LAURA CORRIGAN: The benefits of captions seem obvious, especially when companies risk discrimination claims if they don’t provide access.

Naomi is about to finish her PhD. She says that never would have been possible without the help of captions.

She recalls her first captioned lecture.

NAOMI MALONE: It was a wonderful liberating experience. I didn’t have to rely on my friends anymore. They were fantastic to me but I wanted to have stenographer and to be able to do it on my own. I just wanted that independence.

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