At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, hearing health advocate Shari Eberts penned an open letter to video conferencing companies asking for free captioning services.
The letter turned into a petition with 58,000 signatures and countless comments from people with hearing loss. Google and Microsoft both took their automatic speech recognition captions out from behind a paywall. But Zoom, the clear favorite platform to connect workplaces and loved ones during the pandemic, is lagging behind.
Zoom’s free plan doesn’t include real-time closed captioning. Users can access the captions through paid plans that cost $200 per month — which disappoints advocates like Eberts, who founded the online community Living With Hearing Loss.
“Zoom has very high-quality ASR captions,” she says, “but they are currently stuck behind a paywall.”
People with hearing loss may struggle to follow video conference calls for several reasons. Poor audio quality and spotty internet connection can make lip-reading — their “super power” — much more difficult, Eberts says.
A typical Zoom call is stressful for someone with hearing loss, she says. After dialing in early to set up, people often use speaker mode to see the largest possible image of the person talking or use headphones to improve the audio.
But even still, the audio quality may vary from each speaker and people’s lips sometimes fall out of sync with their words, she says. Captions are a simple solution to make these problems dissipate.
“It's hard for us to want to jump in or to share our thoughts because we're not sure what's been said,” she says. “And obviously, there's a lot of trepidation about looking silly or repeating something that someone just said.”
Zoom didn’t respond to a request for comment from Here & Now.
The gold standard for captioning a conference call is communication access real-time translation, where live transcribers type what’s being said, Eberts says. Now, through automatic speech recognition, computers can listen to a conversation and turn it into a written format.
Zoom partners with Otter, a company that uses high-quality artificial intelligence to produce accurate captions that work well for personal communication, she says. For Eberts, it’s frustrating that people with hearing loss are expected to pay for a feature that provides them with equal access.
“You would never build a building and include ramps, and then ask people in wheelchairs to pay to use them,” she says. “And I think the same thing holds for people with hearing loss in this case.”
Many people who signed Eberts’ petition described the alienation they feel when they're not able to fully understand what's being said in a Zoom meeting. The lack of captions is taking a massive emotional toll on people with hearing loss during a time that’s already tough for everyone, she says, especially for seniors who live alone.
“Imagine seven months of social isolation, not only from in-person visits with your friends and family but also without the ability to converse comfortably with them, virtually either,” she says. “The isolation and the sadness can really be overwhelming.”
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This segment aired on November 23, 2020.