The Power of Accessibility: A Personal View from a Life-long Subtitling User

Below is a transcript of a presentation I gave to attendees at the 10th Languages & The Media Conference 2014 in Berlin. Thank you to the organisers for asking me to present.

My name is Dawn and I run a blog and Twitter account on subtitling called i heart subtitles. And I currently work in broadcast TV so I think I understand both sides of the story. I both require access subtitling and I understand the challenges that have been overcome in the industry and challenges still to face.

I was born in the early 80s in Oxford, England. I must have been in a hurry to get into this world because I was born three months premature and my hearing loss can be attributed to my early arrival. However it was not diagnosed until I was four years old. This meant that I was registered into a mainstream school and fitted with hearing aids and was never encouraged to learn sign language. I instinctively learnt to lip read as my parents discovered when I told them what a newsreader on TV was saying when the sound was turned down.

A screenshot of a BBC Ceefax page (the BBC's version of Teletext)

BBC Ceefax (the BBC’s version of Teletext)

Image of a BBC1 Station Ident with 888 indicating subtitles are available.

BBC1 Station Ident with 888 indicating subtitles are available.

I first discovered subtitles for TV in the mid-90s when my parents acquired a new television with teletext facilities. Programmes that had subtitling were indicated by an 888 caption in the top right hand corner of the screen. 888 was the Teletext page number which provided subtitles

Still of Neighbours opening credits from the 1990s

Neighbours opening credits from the 1990s

My earliest memories of subtitles are from an Australian soap opera called Neighbours and once I discovered them I never switched them off. However, this may surprise you, at first I found subtitles a bit depressing. Because it made me very aware of how much I was not hearing without them even with my hearing aids in and I took pride in coping in the hearing world. That quickly faded to loving them because it made TV viewing so much more relaxing. Hearing aids help a lot but wearing them is not the same experience as wearing glasses to help poor eyesight. I still unconsciously strain to hear everything – at work and at home all day . So to be able to rely on text and use my eyes to hear via subtitles is nothing short of amazing.

A screenshot of Take That on Top of The Pops with subtitles.

Take That on Top of The Pops with subtitles.

In my teens subtitles gave me a peculiar benefit in that I could recite the words to the latest pop tunes which I had seen on a TV pop music chart show called Top of the Pops. If you’re a 90s music fan some of you may recognise the above screenshot of a subtitled Gary Barlow from the boyband Take That. I used to be and still am a big fan.

In the mid 1990s I don’t remember seeing much, if any live subtitling for live television programmes. I always had the Teletext 888 subtitles page turned on. And so when programs without subtitles aired this would be indicated by a blue 888 icon showing on the top right of the screen. I used to refer to this as the “blue screen of death”. And I hated it seeing it because I knew it meant that I was going to struggle to follow what was going on throughout the rest of the programme.

Seeing the “blue icon of death” instead of subtitles appearing left me feeling left out and frustrated so as a teenager I took my first steps in advocacy by supporting an RNID campaign to increase the amount of subtitled content on major UK channels. This small involvement in an effort from numerous parties led to the UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom, implementing the code on television access services.

Seeing this change come about relatively quickly was the start of me maintaining an awareness of the issues surrounding SDH subtitling.

By the end of the 90s/early noughties I had left home and gone to university. At that time real-time subtitling for university lectures was not available. However I had access to a note taker which certainly eased the task of picking up what was being said during lectures.

During this time I also witnessed the move away from analogue to digital broadcast which I am happy to say had no negative impact on subtitling provision so far as I can remember as a subtitling user. It was also a time when VHS was being replaced by the DVD and blu-ray. As I am sure you are all aware, this had a hugely positive impact when it came to being able to access far more content that came with When I left university I got my first job in broadcasting. Both as a consumer and as a broadcast TV employee I have witnessed huge changes in the way we consume content, in particular the rise of video on demand (VOD) services. Some VOD providers are meeting the challenge of providing access to content via SDH subtitles despite no regulatory requirement to do so. For that I am grateful. However the majority do not and I find myself facing a blue icon of death in very different circumstances. I am not going to go too much into why I think this here today. But I have discussed this in various publications and on my blog.

Screenshot of Twitter Image search results of #subtitlefail

Twitter Image search results of #subtitlefail

Instead I want to focus on another observation of change. Not only has the way we choose to watch content changed but the type of content has too. In particular traditional scheduled linear TV has seen a huge rise in the number of hours of live content. What was once limited to news and sport is now hundreds of hours of live entertainment programmes on prime-time TV. Format shows such as Big Brother, The X Factor, The Voice, Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing On Ice to name a few are shown as live broadcasts for months at a time.

These shows are subtitled live and with the rise in social media attract a huge amount of public comments from viewers tweeting online as the show airs. The popularity of this sort of event TV viewing means subtitles and in particular live subtitling errors have attracted mainstream attention via social media. If you search the Twitter hashtag #subtitlefail you will see that much of the attention focuses on the hilarity of the errors and even I do often find them funny. What gets lost in translation sometimes is how lucky we are in the UK to have the volume of live subtitled TV content that we have. I won’t go into too much detail about how it’s done except to say there seems to be little mainstream awareness as to how live subtitling is produced and why errors occur. Again you can read more about this on my blog. I am hopeful that the technology behind it will continue to improve and improve faster in the next 10 years than it has in the last 10.

Screenshot of BBC Genome project website

BBC Genome project website

Taking a pause for a minute, I’d like to reflect on how far we’ve come in the UK. Recently the BBC made available a TV and radio channel listings search facility called Genome.

The first entry for subtitling came in March 1975 on BBC2. This was a subtitled opera programme and so doesn’t really count as access subtitling. Second entry was June 1975. On BBC1 a series called I See What You Mean. The synopsis states: “A series for hearing impaired people and in this episode a studio audience discusses a preview of Ceefax a new BBC technical development which provides some exciting possibilities for the subtitling of programmes for the deaf and hard of hearing.” It seems so understated!

The next four entries were again subtitled opera and we have to wait until February 1977 for BBC2’s News On 2 Headlines with subtitles for the hard of hearing.

In March 1980 the momentum begins when on BBC1 Life on Earth, a David Attenborough program is subtitled. By the end of 1981 subtitling of BBC programmes for the hard of hearing was just starting to slowly expand a little bit more.

Coming back to the present day. Since working in the broadcast industry and seeing the operational workflow involved in getting a TV channel to air and attending industry events, I’m excited by the business benefits SDH subtitles can bring particularly in regards to metadata and search engine optimisation. I hope online Video On Demand providers are listening to this. Again you can read more about this subject on my blog.

So SDH subtitles – why does it matter? The obvious answer is that it’s the right thing to do, to include all members of society. It should be the only answer required for businesses to act but often times it is not and that’s why I’m grateful for regulation in the UK. But to talk about regulation somehow dehumanises it all that’s the crux of it.

You might think giving access to a trashy entertainment programme is trivial but it’s really not. It’s about the positive social impact that this access goes on to have.

You remember earlier on I spoke about Neighbours and Top of the Pops as being early subtitle memories. The reason is because these TV shows were a talking point in the school playground and because they were subtitled it meant I could join in with such conversations about Neighbours plot points or I would know the lyrics of a song that has aired on Top of the Pops and subsequently could bond with a schoolmate over the latest chart music. My life could have been much lonelier.

To give another example, in my first year at university I stayed in hall of residents but my TV reception in my room was so poor I struggled to get reliable subtitles. But not wanting to miss my favourite soap I plucked up the courage to ask my neighbour if I could watch EastEnders with her on her TV which had better reception. She happily obliged and we got to know each other quite well. This friendship that started over sharing a TV and watching a subtitled programme has stood the test of time and we remain close friends.

Such social impacts are hard to measure but are not to be underestimated.

Today I live and work in London and advocate for subtitling in all forms of media. The UK is one of the few countries that has open SDH subtitles in cinemas and whilst there are limitations with screening times this is a fantastic result and resource to have. I have also spent the last year volunteering for a charity called STAGETEXT which provide open captions for live theatre as well as talks and lectures in art galleries and museums across the UK.

I’m excited about where else we can see SDH subtitles being provided. There are various companies offering live subtitles for lectures, talks at conferences, and meetings in the workplace. And you can access this live real-time subtitling through PCs, laptops, tablets smart phones and even Google Glass.

There are always improvements to be made and battles to be won with access to audiovisual media via SDH subtitles. Some of the biggest challenges are the direct result of new technologies but I remain hopeful that new technology will also provide some of the solutions.

To anyone who has ever typed, spoken, edited, or QC’d subtitles. Or if you have built and contributed to technologies that allow me to switch the subtitles on I thank you for doing so. Thank you for your patience and indulgence. I hope you enjoyed my story.

Sound label subtitles image saying CHEERS AND APPLAUSE.

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