Are bad captions better than no captions?

AI-based captioning software is becoming more prevalent thanks to pandemic WFH. But do the people who need them most find them helpful?

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

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Zoom closed captioning button and notification

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In the first part of this article, I explored whether bad image descriptions were better than no image descriptions. After consulting with many blind users, I didn’t find a single one who said they would rather have bad image descriptions.

Now I’m applying the same question in the context of captioning — are bad captions better than no captions at all?

I don’t have to go far to find real-life experience. My daughter has a moderately severe bilateral congenital hearing loss. I have an acquired autoimmune hearing loss and a wicked case of tinnitus from decades of NSAID use because of my arthritis. Because I worked as an advocate for people with hearing loss for almost a decade, many of my friends (or their children) have hearing loss.

There are two forms of captioning:

  • Live captioning, otherwise known as CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation). This involves someone live interpreting and typing the audio stream, using a court reporting-like interface to keep up real-time with what is being spoken.
  • Automatic captions, usually AI-based, where software interpreted the speech and outputs to the audio stream.

For someone like me, captions help. They aren’t critically essential, but I know after a day of 7 hours of zoom calls, if I don’t have captions, I probably have a headache at the end of the day and go to bed early. I am also guaranteed to have missed at least one point per meeting. What I miss ranges from subtle to really important. Captions also benefit more visual learners than auditory learners (I am also one of those people).

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Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

LinkedIn Top Voice for Social Impact 2022. UX Collective Author of the Year 2020. Disability Inclusion SME. Sr Staff Accessibility Architect @ VMware.