Another day, another Zoom meeting. Or make that two or three Zoom meetings. Much of the world continues to operate remotely, meaning virtual communication remains critical — and without captions, these events are very challenging for people with hearing loss. Several options now exist for free auto-captioned remote conversation including Google Meet and Skype, but Zoom, the most popular platform, remains un-captioned, except via third-party add-ons in their premium plans. This is a big problem for people with hearing loss.
About a month ago, I penned an open letter to Zoom and other video conferencing companies asking them to make the high quality auto speech recognition (ASR) captioning available in their premium plans free for people with hearing loss. The gold standard of captioning is Communication Access Realtime Translation or CART, where a live transcriber types what is spoken in real time, but this is not always available or cost effective for personal use. Hence the need for free ASR captioning.
My post turned into a petition that has garnered more than 34,000 signatures. I am extremely proud of how the hearing loss community has come together to advocate for its needs in this time of crisis. I’ve been asked how long I will keep the petition going. The answer: Until we get the results we need. Sign or share the petition here.
An Update on Free Auto Captioning on Zoom
Since the petition launched I have been in email contact with Zoom management. They are aware of the important issue of free ASR captioning for people with hearing loss on their platform, and some work is being done on this front. Still, nothing formal has been announced yet. This is what I learned.
Prior to COVID-19, Zoom was beta testing ASR captioning that was directly integrated into its platform for paid accounts. Zoom was considering making this service free for people with hearing loss with verification via an audiologist note. This integrated service would be different from the current methods used to access captions in Zoom premium accounts since the captions would be directly integrated into the platform. Currently captioning requires a third party partner such as Rev.com (beta), Otter.ai or a live CART captioner.
When the pandemic hit, Zoom’s volume jumped exponentially, pushing the ASR captioning project to a back burner, as Zoom focused on beefing up its security and increasing its hosting infrastructure. This makes sense, but as things settle down, Zoom must make its ASR captioning project a priority and commit to making this premium service widely available for people with hearing loss.
Zoom’s Beta ASR Captioning Works Well
I had the chance to try out the beta ASR captions when I attended a Zoom informational webinar entitled “Hosting Large Events: Webinars vs. Meetings” as part of my research for our upcoming Hearing Loss Virtual Meeting sponsored by Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). We are always looking for ways to enhance the experience. Please join us for the next meeting on June 6th at 2pm EDT which features Toni Iacolucci and Elaine McCaffrey discussing Advocacy & Impact: Effective Communication in Healthcare Settings. Use this link to join the meeting.
The beta captioning, called Live Transcript, worked very well. The placement was fine at the bottom of the screen, although it did obscure part of the slide presentation. You could open the captions as a full transcript in the sidebar, but they also remained at the bottom of the screen. The accuracy was quite good — I believe it is using the Otter AI platform — particularly since both presenters spoke very rapidly! Thank goodness the captions were there or I would have missed much of the content. You can see a screenshot of the captions in the post image above.
What’s Next For Free ASR Captions on Zoom?
The good news is that a workable option exists on Zoom and that they are beta testing it. The bad news is that this feature is not yet available and now is when it is likely needed most. If you want Zoom to roll this out now and to make sure that people with hearing loss have free access, please sign and share the petition. I will continue to send updates to Zoom management. You can also reach out to Zoom directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Zoom_us to explain why free ASR captions on Zoom are so critical for you.
Readers, how are you adapting to the life of Zoom meetings?