Captioning the Web: the Newest Frontier in Accessibility

Less than two weeks ago, new laws went into effect mandating captioning for full-length, IP-delivered programming. While the legislation is a big step in the right direction, it is still the product of a democratic government and has been through the bureaucratic wringer of negotiations and compromises. As a result, much IP-delivered content is exempt from the new rules, specifically, programs that never air on TV and clips of programs that are any less than the full broadcast-television duration.

Jamie Berke, an advocate for all captioning who is deaf herself, has made it her campaign to make the web accessible. She founded Caption Action 2, a consumer advocacy group that petitions corporations — rather than the government — to make their web material accessible. Their latest struggle involved Yahoo! Screen, a web-content platform similar to Hulu.

While Caption Action 2 has a wealth of battles it could fight, the group chose Yahoo! Screen because the platform does not support captions, as opposed to sites like Hulu and Netflix, which do. “Look at YouTube. it has had support for closed captioning for some time,” said Berke. Though sites like Comedy Central’s or Fox’s do not caption short clips, they at least have the capability to show captioned material, whereas Yahoo! Screen’s sleek interface lacks the “CC” button altogether, making it inaccessible to 50 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

Adding to the affront is the fact that Yahoo! Screen is no longer an obscure platform for web media. The internet giant recently won Streamy Awards — the Oscars of web content — for original shows “Burning Love,” “Cybergeddon,” and “Electric City.” Since these shows never aired on broadcast TV, even the FCC mandates did not require captioning.

Before forming the group, Jamie has petitioned Yahoo! on her own behalf, emailing, blogging about, and even tweeting tech-savvy corporation directly. “I regularly tweet the CEO, Marissa Mayer, whenever the petition gains another 500 signatures,” Jamie said. She had once said she will shut down Caption Action 2 once the new CVAA regulations passed, but even those regulations became so watered down that did not feel she could end this crusade.

On March 31st, the same day that the captioning mandates took effect, a caption feature quietly appeared on the Yahoo! Screen interface. The captions — by Jamie’s report — seem to be the product of voice recognition equipment, rather than human captioning, not unlike the automatic captioning feature on YouTube. The quality leaves something to be desired, but in the captioning advocacy game, it is a victory nonetheless. “You have to start somewhere,” said Jamie.

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