Jack Edwards doesn’t want to be praised for doing what he considers the least: making his videos accessible to his deaf and hard of hearing viewers.
Edwards started making book and lifestyle videos on YouTube five years ago, but only started captioning all of his videos in January. “One of my goals this year was to spend more time making my channel more accessible to viewers,” he says. “I always think of the quote, ‘It’s a privilege to learn, rather than experiment,’ and that’s true for many accessibility issues. I don’t rely on captions to enjoy YouTube content, so it’s easy to forget that others do. “
More creators like Edwards have been writing subtitles for their videos over the past year, providing subtitles so that more viewers can interact with their content without having to listen to or understand the audio.
It’s an outcome that advocates for the deaf deemed nearly impossible about a year ago, when YouTube rejected subtitle contributions from the community. Most YouTube channels don’t upload captions for their videos, so subscribers had to provide high-quality captions for other viewers to read. However, in September, YouTube scrapped feature allowing subtitles submitted by viewers, citing “little use” and “abuse”. The creators had to start making subtitles themselves.
When the plans were first announced In April 2020, deaf YouTuber Rikki Poynter, a prolific caption activist, gave me a very grim prognosis. “Community contributions gave us more channels with captions and now we will risk having less of that.” Half a million people signed an online petition calling on YouTube to reverse the decision, and thousands of Twitter users got the hashtag #DontRemoveYouTubeCCs trend in September.
But over the past year, more creators have started adding their own subtitles. Compared to August, the month before community captions were out of date, total user-submitted captions in January increased by more than 20 percent, a YouTube spokesperson told me. Year over year, from January 2020 to January 2021, the increase was more than 30 percent.
“We are delighted that creators find our captioning tools useful for their videos,” the spokesperson said by email.
Although new tools were made available, such as a completely new subtitle editor and the ability to add subtitles during the upload process In July 2020 and May 2021, respectively, for some, the incentive to start captioning came from somewhere else: their viewers.
“I got a message on Twitter about how YouTube was planning to launch a major [closed captions] a few months ago and that could mean there would be none for my hearing impaired viewers, ”said Kennie JD, who creates videos about makeup and movies for an audience of nearly 570,000 people. “I found it awful, so I’ve been paying for a service called Rev.com that makes subtitles for my videos after they upload.”
Poynter suggests that greater awareness of the importance of closed captions is behind the 20 percent increase, that and the idea that creators “have no choice now” as they cannot trust viewers to fill the gap. Whatever the reason, she’s not the only one benefiting from increased subtitles. “[It’s] Also people with ADHD, auditory processing disorder or [those] learn whatever language is spoken in the video. There are so many groups of people who are getting lost, ”he says. “If listeners and things like that can enjoy content, why can’t we too?”
Poor-quality subtitles don’t help either. YouTube provides automatic captions through speech recognition, but many deaf users find them inaccurate and unreliable.
Therefore, deaf activists and YouTubers like Poynter should ask others to write their own captions. “I used to send personal emails to a lot of YouTube users a year asking them to subtitle their content,” he says. “During the VidCon and Playlist Live seasons for a few years, I even personally wrote letters and mailed them to him.”
YouTube added the ability to add captions in the “upload stream” earlier this month. In the past, the social media site did not promote its captioning features well.
Poynter notes that the reported increase in manual captions is great, but they still need more promotion. For now, it looks like the community is doing YouTube’s work.
“[Captioning is] something that I hope all creators who make content full time start doing, “says Edwards. “While it’s really nice to get a little thank you message as a token of someone’s appreciation, it’s also important to acknowledge the even more important work that creators who are deaf or hard of hearing do on the platform.”
Commenting on YouTube’s recent promotion of closed captions in a tweet on Twitter, Poynter says: “They’ll need to be more consistent about it. I like that the upload process now has a more accessible way [way of adding captions]. When people actually see it, they are a little more likely to want to use it. “