Captions: The New Hearing Aid

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What are the challenges of a hearing deficit?

Navigating through the world can be tough for people with hearing loss. When the virus took the world by storm and everyone had to hide behind a mask to protect themselves, it was especially hard for people with hearing deficiencies. Pat Olken of Massachusetts testified that hearing aids were not sufficient. With people resorting to masks, they became more and more unintelligible to her.

These people have a significantly bigger challenge to face — difficulty in acquiring top education as well as jobs. Difficulty in communicating can also lead to social withdrawal. It is estimated that there are around 40 million adults in the United States who suffer from hearing loss. They need to adopt certain technologies that could help them grip on to the sound-rich world. These include a range of devices, starting from Victorian-era ear trumpets to the now popular digital hearing aids, as well as cochlear implants.

How can captions be helpful?

If we are talking about hearing aids available now, their cost can reach up to a whopping $5,000. Cochlear implants too, which are fitted through surgical processes, can be unaffordable to many. Very often, these are not even covered by insurance and, in many cases, do not suit every person. What is more, these devices do not work like glasses that immediately correct vision. They work by making the brain interpret sound in a different way.

Captions can become a new ally to steer hard-of-hearing people through life. They can follow dialogues or scene sounds and therefore keep track of the action in a movie or TV show.

What are the solutions?

Significantly, captions are no longer restricted to only TV screens or streaming services. Once captions broaden their horizons, they can significantly help people with hearing deficiencies.

Pat Olken was going to have her grandson’s bar mitzvah (a Jewish initiation ceremony) in the early period of the pandemic. This ceremony was streamed on the social platform Zoom, but at that time, captions for such services were not even envisaged. Therefore, Olken sought help from Otter, an app that helps create transcriptions for business meetings. With transcriptions, Olken could read the ceremony’s speakers, and this served as a helpful resource.

Even Microsoft and Google online platforms now have the facility of live transcription through Artificial Intelligence (AI). These help people understand performances, meetings, or teachings, etc. A
A Nebraska-based company, Hamilton CapTel, offers customers the opportunity to avail themselves of auto captions for phone calls. Auto Captions work using Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR). These can help hearing-impaired customers attend phone calls with more confidence.

What are the downsides of captions?

One of the major stumbling blocks faced by captioning services is the inability to transcribe jargon or slang. Moreover, captions are not always accurate, nor can they recognize every voice when multiple are present.

People can find it very tiring to follow the captions in every discussion. Another issue that presents itself is the transcription lag. While conversations go in a flow, a person following lagged transcription may be slow to catch up with other members of a conversation. Technology, too, poses challenges. When internet services are down, these captions do not show up.

Many movies do not even have the facility of captions, which distresses certain people. Even when the pandemic hit and everything shifted behind the screens in early 2020, captions in Zoom were not heard of till late 2021, although Google and MS teams added them in mid-2020.

Although captions can serve as a boon, they come with certain limitations. All of us need to develop sensitivity for people who have hearing loss and help them navigate through their lives.

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