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Captions on 'Net Mean Better Access for OR Deaf Community

December 28, 2009

PORTLAND, Ore. - The explosion of video and audio on the Internet has, for the most part, left the deaf community behind in Oregon and elsewhere, but that is beginning to change. Most of the television shows broadcast over-the-air already feature closed captioning, but groups advocating for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community say it's been a whole different story when it comes to video on the Internet.

Web sites that feature videos usually don't offer captioning, although there is a bill in Congress that would require them to do so. HR 3101, the "21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009," has 25 cosponsors, including Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer.

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

"It's really kind-of created this new divide between the hearing and severely hard-of-hearing deaf populations."

Malak says the recent announcement from Google that automatic caption capability will be added to videos on its popular YouTube site is a step in the right direction. 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 eventually extend the feature to all videos uploaded to the site.

As more people shift to the Internet to view their news and entertainment, the lack of captioning becomes a greater concern, according to Malak.

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

Google's audio engineers say background noise and strong accents pose a challenge to creating precise captions from the spoken word, but they expect voice-recognition technology to continue to improve.

More than 10 million Americans have some form of hearing loss, and Malak says that number is expected to grow as baby boomers age, which means high demand for quality closed-captioning systems.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR