Closed Captioning Policymaking and Civil Rights


Liz Ellcessor, PhD. has a wealth of information about disability civil rights, closed captioning policymaking, and digital accessibility. We were fortunate meet with Liz and get the inside scoop on closed captioning policymaking and disability civil right.

Liz’s research focuses on media and cultural studies which lead to her article, “Captions On, Off, on TV, Online Accessibility and Search Engine Optimization in Online Closed Captioning.” Later this summer, Liz is joining Indiana University as an Assistant Professor in Communication and Culture.

Thanks for meeting with us, Liz. Let’s start at the beginning; how did you get involved in disability rights?

I first considered disability, and access, as a web developer when I was learning to make web content comply with accessibility standards. In graduate school, I began studying how media content exists in particular technological forms, and how those forms might need to change to accommodate disability. Eventually, I discovered classes in disability studies and learned about the history of the disability rights movement in the U.S. as it relates to media.

Throughout your research, have your noticed any changes in closed captioning rules over the past 30 years?

Closed captioning policy has gone through many changes since its inception, with laws incrementally increasing the amount of television content required to be captioned. One thing I find most interesting is that civil rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, have done relatively little to increase captioning. Instead, telecommunications laws (such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the recent 21st Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act) have produced more far-reaching requirements and have done so with the cooperation of a range of technical experts. This works very well for creating practical policies that media producers will follow, but it can also shut down possibilities for other accommodations or result in a loss of focus on the rights and interests of those who need captioning.

Additionally, I would point out that captioning now is being addressed at a supranational level, with policies and recommendations produced by organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium, the United Nations, and others. These recommendations are not usually subject to the same enforcements, but they do signal how important captioning is for a global population.

What are the different venues that can influence these policies?

I’d suggest that there are many ways that captioning policy could be affected, including via direct activism, the individual actions of motivated content producers, and the formation of technologies or services to produce captions such as the Participatory Culture Foundation’s Universal Subtitles project (Amara). Policy itself, however, can be thought of as existing at the legal or governmental level (laws that tell you what you have to do), at an industrial level (standards or practices that govern one or more companies’ actions and products), and at a voluntary level (where individuals or communities create and enact best practices). Ideally, closed captioning on television and online would benefit from all three of those levels working together toward common goals. Often, though, there are differences between their goals and methods.

So the #captionTHIS social media movement would be an example of voluntary action, correct? Do you think a social media movements can spark action?

I followed #captionTHIS on Twitter, and was impressed with the number and variety of tweets. This kind of social media activism can be really powerful for raising awareness about the importance of captioning and the existing audiences for it!

Great. Let’s switch over to industry’s role in captioning policy. In “Captions On, Off, on TV, Online Accessibility and Search Engine Optimization in Online Closed Captioning,” you use the term “neoliberal model.” Could you please define the term and tell us how it affects accessibility policies?

“Neoliberal” is often used to describe a cultural shift in the last 30 years, in which societies are increasingly based on individualism, entrepreneurial behavior, and the ability to make choices to maximize success. It is contrasted with historical liberalism, which focused more on collective benefits. Neoliberalism is used to discuss contemporary politics, economies, and even cultural activities, like using Facebook!

I suggested that captioning policies have become increasingly neoliberal as they are pursued as not matters of civil rights, but as matters of consumer choice or market optimization. This also makes it unfortunately easy to see closed captioning as a special service for some people, and to expect deaf, hard-of-hearing, and other Americans who need this service to advocate for it, if not pay for it, themselves. Neoliberalism can hide the fact that sometimes, what is good for one group of people is also good for wider populations – captions aren’t just useful for deaf Americans, they’re used in all kinds of other situations, including gyms, medical offices, bars, and even by hearing people at home.

What are the pros and cons of industry’s effect on policies?

I think that industrial captioning services, like Google’s YouTube autocaptions, can be important drivers of technological innovation. It’s a really exciting possibility to see audio turned into text and even translated automatically. Unfortunately, it does not yet create the kind of accurate transcriptions that are necessary for people who cannot hear or understand the language of the original.

Thus, I see there being a risk inherent in industrial captioning projects. Because of their reach and the power of industry, these projects can set de facto standards by setting (and limiting) our expectations of what is possible.

In addition to making videos/audio accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans, closed captions have countless other benefits to society and industry (i.e. SEO, learning English, understanding a program in a loud place, helping kids learn to read, etc).

In your opinion, can companies promote these other benefits without distracting from the feature’s role in civil rights and accessibility?

I think these benefits are really important effects of captioning, but should probably not be the main motives for closed captioning. If they become the primary reasons for producing captions, we lose sight of those for whom captions are necessary, and may subsequently reduce the quality of captions.

A universal design approach might be the best way to consider these indirect benefits. Universal design suggests that if we begin by considering those who need something specific, we can produce something that works better for many people. Thus, if we begin by considering the needs (and rights) of deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans, we will likely produce the best captions for those people, which will, in turn serve many others.

This could also be thought of in terms of coalitional activism, where people advocate change not only on the basis of shared identity (“deaf Americans”), but on the basis of shared needs. Many people benefit from captioning, and want to see more of it – they might be able to work together to create activist campaigns, voluntary policies, or consumer movements to improve and expand captioning.

I see. VITAC will definitely keep that in mind! Thank you so much for your time, Liz. One final question: where can we read more of your articles?

This is my only article explicitly focused on captioning. However, I’ve written on web content accessibility more broadly in Information, Communication & Society (2010). I’ve also written about online media for Cinema Journal (2012), and I have several more informal posts on these topics at the media studies blog, Antenna (

Right now, I’m working on an article about the ways in which web accessibility is discussed in web development textbooks. In the longer term, I’m studying some web series made by people with disabilities in comparison to television representations of disability. I expect that examining captioning practices and other accessibility measures will be part of that project!