John Walker: Has anyone else noticed that more online videos are being only part-subtitled?

Posted on November 5, 2016

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On 3rd May 2016, the European Commission announced that they have officially approved new rules for web accessibility for EU government websites and apps.

This rule stated that all government videos must be ‘closed captioned’ and live video must be subtitled within the first 14 days after the first broadcast. It is the start of a journey to create an EU directive on web accessibility.

It seems that many organisations and companies have caught the wind of it and started to include subtitles on videos hosted on their websites. It seems easier now, to persuade people to include more subtitles for their on line content. There are some particular examples such as videos from Channel 4 news, which are particularly good.

I must say that one of the effects of leaving the European Union is that we will lose out on these developments and I hope we will stay in long enough for this new behaviour to become the norm. At least, to an extent that we can create our own national legislation on subtitling of web resources, government sites, news sites, and so on.

Just recently, I have started to follow more of the news sites that have included subtitles and are setting the trend.

But there was one example from where someone was reflecting on the Trump vs. Hilary debate and how Trump’s threats to ‘imprison Hilary’ were setting himself above the law. Trump wants to compel a judge to incarcerate his opposition; or in other words, a dictator.

The video was subtitled for the first 20 seconds of a nearly 5 minute video. While I managed to understand the gist of the video, I have no idea what was said for the other 4 minutes and 40 seconds! The subtitles just disappeared. What happened?

Did the subtitler think, “that was enough.” Or did they think that the rest of the video was not very interesting, or perhaps too difficult for deaf people to understand?

After discussing this with various hearing friends, there is a possible reason as to why videos were only part-subtitled. People typically keep the volume down when browsing on their smartphone and only raise the volume when they find something interesting to watch. So, the first part is subtitled, the main point or headline grabber, which gives time for the viewer to up the volume and follow the rest. I can imagine that subtitling is a useful tool to bring viewers to their sites, especially when viewing (advertising) equals profits.

This is not the first time I have seen this approach to subtitling, it is a growing trend on various news sites – in fact, this is the third example I have seen this year.

Another growing trend is the use of google auto-subtitling. Speech recognition is improving all the time and google auto-subtitling is leading the way. It evens highlights which words were understood and greyed words that are approximations. It would take an office worker just 5 minutes to check the auto-subtitles and correct them for mistakes – it is not a big job.

The new web access directive from the EU is a great move, but it would be a disaster if part-subtitling becomes the norm and provision is watered down to providing subtitles for the main point, but not the details of the story. It would be a disaster if we create a situation where hearing people have access to the full story (no matter how good or bad it might be) and deaf people only receive the sweetener, the soundbite.

But here comes the sticking point. There is knowledge everywhere, from a library to a newsfeed, and our access to this resource is essential for our wellbeing, our education and our economic worth. But when one stands at the door of a library of information, or at a newsfeed stream, unable to use or access that information in its entirety, it becomes insanely infuriating.

To a point, I find myself searching the web for a complete subtitled version, or an article, or a transcript with the full story. If ‘knowledge is power’, then I am greatly disempowered by missing the unknown.

If this infuriates us, we need to start letting them know.

John Walker is a Teaching Fellow at University of Sussex and PhD student in Social Geography. Deaf, and sign language user by informed choice. He writes a blog on topics related to the Bourdieusian principle, by the title “Deaf Capital” . It is concerned with the ‘value’ that people place on the Deaf community or the cultural elements of deaf lives that can be askew or misconstrued. Follow him on twitter as @chereme

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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