If Everyone Loves Captions, Why Are They So Misunderstood?

Research continues to show how much the general population loves captions. So why are they still so misunderstood—confused with a recording device at a recent Broadway show and mocked by television presenters when used for an interview.

Perhaps it is partially due to the age of the beholder. A new study by language learning app Preply confirms what many people with hearing loss already know: captions are terrific! But surprisingly, they are most admired and utilized by younger generations. This trend provides hope for the future—increased demand for captioning will benefit all of us—but continued worries that near term challenges remain.

Study Shows People are Using Captions More Often

Preplay’s survey of 1,200 Americans showed heavy subtitle use, with at least 89% of respondents saying they have used subtitles in the past.

The main reasons for using subtitles included

  • muddled audio (75%)
  • difficult to understand accents (61%)
  • because they like to stream quietly to avoid disturbing others (29%) and
  • to keep focused (27%).

53% of respondents indicated they are using captions more often.

  • 78% said louder background music makes it harder to hear dialogue
  • 55% felt it is harder to hear dialogue than it was before
  • 44% thought the visuals of recent productions are not as well lit so harder to follow
  • 35% said actors and TV personalities speak faster than they used to.

I agree!

Interestingly, captions are most popular among younger generations. Gen Z (aged 10-25) are the most frequent users at 70%, followed by Millennials (aged 26-41) at 53%. Older respondents, such as Gen X (aged 42-57) and Baby Boomers (aged 58-67) were the groups least likely to use subtitles often at 38% and 35% respectively.

Perhaps this explains some of the recent misunderstandings surrounding the use of captions in public spaces.

Captioning Device Mistaken for a Recording Device

A Broadway actress publicly called out an audience member in the first row who was using a captioning device thinking it was a recording device. This incident highlights the need for more education in theater about accessibility devices.

I’ve used GalaPro on my smartphone for captions at Broadway shows for several years with no issue. I always let my seat-mates know I will be using my phone during the show for captioning (to avoid any mid-show misunderstandings) and people are usually interested in learning more. I sometimes even see them peeking over at the captions if they miss something!

The theater involved in this particular incident does not offer GalaPro. Instead, you must pick up a theater-specific captioning device. Even so, a slight alteration to the “turn off your cellphone announcement” could be a simple solution to the problem.

“Turn off your cellphones and other electronic devices unless you are using them for captioning or audio description,” would alert both performers and attendees that these types of devices are available and in-use.

Caption-User Mocked by Television Presenter

The Democratic nominee for Senate from Pennsylvania was criticized and demeaned by a television personality for using closed-captioning for his on-air interview. Recovering from a stroke, the candidate used the captions to help him process the questions. Yet some used this to question his mental fitness and capacity for office. Heavy sigh.

The good news is that many advocates and others in the media quickly jumped to his defense. Using accessibility measures like captions does not mean you are unfit, it means you are strategic and will use all the tools at your disposal to get the job done.

More Education About Captioning is Needed

Missteps like those described above highlight the continued need for education about captioning, but there is good news on the horizon. By the time Gen Z is on Broadway and hosting network news programs, perhaps the stigma will finally have withered away.

Readers, how often do you use captions?

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17 thoughts on “If Everyone Loves Captions, Why Are They So Misunderstood?

  1. Susan Berger – Blogging is one big experiment for me. Will it work? Who knows. I'll link websites that have published my essays and maybe I'll write original posts. My topics will be observations, points of view and life as I see it. I'm still marinating...
    Susan Berger says:

    Important topic, Shari! As an aside, I have the GalaPro app on my phone but haven’t used it as yet. Last time I was at a Broadway show pre-Covid, I used the theater’s device. My concern is that my phone won’t hold enough power for my general usage plus what it needs for the duration of the show. Do you have an additional mobile charging device and if so are you happy with the battery life? Thanks.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of "We Hear You," an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, "Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss," (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      It probably depends on your phone but I have never had an issue with the battery and GalaPro. You can always charge ahead of time if you are worried. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Blows my mind that the captions on pre-recorded content are not perfect. I’ve asked the FCC presenters at HLAA conventions about this and all they say is that I should report each instance. They obviously do not try to watch a movie or old program on a TV that is muted. I’ve given up trying to advocate for quality captioning

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of "We Hear You," an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, "Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss," (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      It is frustrating but we can’t give it. Please continue to report captioning issues to the FCC. Thanks for your efforts.

  3. How often do I use captions? Every single day. I use them for TV mostly, but also with Google’s Live Transcribe when I mingle in public. Masking prevents my being able to speech read, so I have to find alternate methods. I make sure that Zoom meetings are set up to show captions. I rely on my iPad’s written notifications of news events as they unfold. I have used GalaPro while watching stage performances and it’s wonderful. The Kennedy Center offers captioned performances as well, but I discovered that I must sometimes verify that my seating is close enough to the relatively small screen to read. The only time I don’t need captioning is around my family and trusted, unmasked neighbors.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of "We Hear You," an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, "Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss," (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      That is wonderful! I am so glad you are enjoying them in so many places. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I love Zoom captions. However I had one incident when using CART in Zoom, that the captions were delayed and truncated. Zoom support is trying to research this problem. Zoom support needs to know if anyone else has experienced this problem. If so, would you comment about your experience?

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of "We Hear You," an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, "Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss," (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Great question. I think part of it depends on the CART operator as well. Thanks for working on this important issue.

  5. Hi Shari,
    Your post today was great but did not mention synchronicity. I know some of your previous posts have addressed this problem including the GalaPro link provided in your post. The timing of your post today was perfect for me. I am in the process of emailing the major networks and the FCC to improve the synchronicity of all TV broadcasts.. Most (but not all, e.g the popular “60 Minutes”) of their scripted shows are reasonably OK. However, on non-scripted shows such as news or sporting events, the captions, written by live captioners, are usually way behind what is on the screen. I personally watch these shows using apps on my cell phone that provide synchronous captions, but it is not as pleasurable.

    The point is that the technology exists to always provide synchronous captions and I cannot understand what the problem is in not doing so. Perhaps using your influence and the numerous people that follow your posts (as well as your articles in Hearing Health magazine), we can get these changes to take place quickly.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of "We Hear You," an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, "Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss," (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Yes, synchronicity is very important. Thanks for bringing that up. And yes, I will continue to advocate for quality captions which includes both accuracy and synchronicity. Thanks for your comment.

  6. I found it interesting that Baby Boomers had a lower percentage of captioning use. Can’t help but wonder if this is secondary to difficulties knowing how to use them. I know that it took me a while to understand how to use my cell phone captioning app.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of "We Hear You," an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, "Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss," (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Good question. I think the survey was about using them when watching media.

  7. I have found that the Google captioning on the Pixels is excellent. I feel that the captioning for the phone app has helped my word comprehension after numerous calls to companies where the speakers are not native speakers. I watch a lot of YouTube and the captioning is helpful but they ignore bad words which leads to occasional disjointed captioning.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of "We Hear You," an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, "Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss," (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Thanks for sharing what works for you.

  8. Jerry Henderson – Pownal Maine – Thank you for coming to my space. This is where I post thoughts, opinions and commentary on a variety of subjects at irregular intervals. I try to do something weekly, but have not nailed down a rigid schedule, like every Wednesday, yet. If you would like email notifications of new posts, you can make that happen right on the site. Simply enter your email address to subscribe. Also, if you would like to comment I welcome that. Just do so in the space at the bottom of any selected post. Sharing thoughts, opinion and commentary is a peculiarly human characteristic. It must be exercised to be enjoyed. Jerry Henderson
    Jerry Henderson says:

    Definitely – Absolutely – Without a shadow of doubt people are speaking too fast. If that person is in my presence I can ask her to slow down. However, the most egregious offenders are often in the media and purport to be communicators. The evening news is without captions but often includes someone signing. Hmm – I’m still looking for the logic in that.

    I say bring back “speech” classes, or rhetoric or elocution – what it means to communicate. . . . beginning in pre-school. Meanwhile, everything should be captioned by default. It’s about communication.

    All this Shari goes back to the sad reality that hearing loss is still woefully misunderstood, even by many of us who suffer from it.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of "We Hear You," an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, "Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss," (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Sad but true. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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