Subtitle It

I can’t imagine what life must have been like for people with hearing loss before the advent of subtitles, on the television and on DVDs etc. I love them. They give me another part of life where I don’t need to worry about my ears.

Indeed I’m sure that using subtitles sometimes gives me a better hearing experience than people with good hearing. Do you remember last year when everyone was enjoying Wolf Hall but moaning about not being able to follow the whispered speech in badly lit Tudor halls? I was happily following every mumble, occasionally saying to people “why don’t you just turn on the subtitles?”

And it’s not just the TV and DVDs. I don’t know if you’ve heard of MOOCs? It stands for massive open online courses. These are a recent great leap forward in leisure learning where you can follow, at no charge and in your own time, high quality courses on a huge variety of subjects, mainly provided by university departments. When I first heard of these, and that they were partly video based, I assumed I’d not be able to take part, but one provider at least (Future Learn) subtitles every video. Fantastic. I have enjoyed excellent courses on Hadrian’s Wall and Richard III.

Going back to the television, at the moment subtitling provision is patchy. However, things may be improving, spurred on by a campaign, Subtitle It!, run by Action on Hearing Loss. The main problem is video on demand or catch-up channels. BBC iPlayer subtitles almost everything but the other on demand channels don’t have nearly such a good track record – indeed only about a quarter of on demand programmes are subtitled, even if they were originally broadcast with subtitles. For example, one of my favourite TV programmes is Channel 4’s Homeland. Last season it was subtitled if I watched it live but if I couldn’t be in front of the television at 9pm on a Sunday night there were no subtitles on the catch up service – so I would have to miss the episode. This might seem like a trivial problem (especially if you don’t like Homeland) but it means that people with hearing loss are being cut off from something that everyone else is increasingly taking for granted. My view is that providing subtitles for deaf people is like providing ramped access for wheelchair users – it is a slight accommodation that makes a huge difference.

If you want to read more about the Subtitle It! campaign look at this, or, if you would like to read about a brilliant campaign by teenager Jamie Danjoux to get Sky to increase their subtitling click here. He explains how the lack of subtitles on his favourite programmes means he misses out on sitting down to watch with his brothers and sisters.

Sometimes when I rave about subtitles people tell me how terrible they are, mainly because they have been watching live programmes where the subtitling is provided by speech recognition software. Indeed, huge howlers abound with this technology. There are lots of great examples online but my favourites are calling for a “moment of violence” at the Queen Mother’s funeral (it was a moment of silence) and, on BBC Breakfast when interviewing a farmer whose pigs “love to nibble anything that comes into the shed, including our willies” (yes, it was wellies!). So I avoid the live programmes when I can, until speech recognition technology improves.

Talking of which, yesterday I tried out an app that uses speech recognition software to provide a live “translation” of speech onto a tablet or smart phone. It featured on a list of apps possibly of use to deaf people and it was pretty good for simple sentences, but less good for anything complex. I couldn’t really see how it would help me but it was fun to play. My name (Vera Brearey) came out “beer brewery”. What me? I hardly drink at all.

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