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Do You Hear What I Hear? Closed Captioning Arrives on the Internet

December 24, 2009

HARTFORD, Conn. - The explosion of video and audio on the Internet has, for the most part, left the deaf community behind, but that is starting to change. Groups that advocate for people who are deaf are cheering a recent decision by Google to add automatic caption capability to videos on YouTube, as have broadcast television shows for years. Most sites that feature video entertainment don't offer captioning, although Congress is considering a bill that would require them to do so.

Kerry Malak, communications director at the Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Milwaukee. says the situation has resulted in a type of "caste system" on the Web.

"It has created this new divide between the hearing and severely hard-of-hearing deaf populations."

As more people shift to the Internet to view news and entertainment video, Malak says the lack of captioning becomes more and more of a problem.

"Most of the online TV content is not captioned at all, which is a big problem, because you are used to seeing that on your TV."

The recent announcement from Google that automatic caption capability is being added to videos on YouTube is a step in the right direction, she adds, and the population of people with hearing difficulties is expected to grow as baby boomers age.

Google audio engineers say background noise and strong accents pose a challenge to creating precise captions from the spoken word, but that voice recognition technology will continue to improve with time. According to Google, machine-generated captions will initially be available only in English, and on videos from 13 YouTube partner channels, but it hopes to extend the feature eventually to all videos uploaded to the site.

The bill mentioned is HR 3101, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009.

Deb Courson, Public News Service - CT