The 2016 State Of The Union Address: No Access for the Deaf

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Kate Corbett Pollack

As a Deaf person who relies on closed-captioning to be able to understand television, film, or any other type of media using spoken language, I was disappointed yet again by being unable to watch the State of the Union this week on, the site on which it was live streamed.

Like many Americans, particularly young Americans and students, I use my computer to watch things. I have a nice, new computer and high-speed Internet. As a Deaf person, I rely on the Internet in order to do the bulk of my communicating with others through emailing, messaging, and various apps, so paying for high-speed internet and maintaining a good computer are essential for me. I will pay for Internet and not pay for cable, since I cannot afford both. At any rate, I was disappointed to find that the quality of the captioning on the State Of The Union at, the official site of the White House, was unwatchable. It was so awful that I just gave up. My hearing friends were all on social media talking about watching the SOTU and I’m going to be honest, it really hurt that I couldn’t watch it along with them. I’m used to this happening, but it still was extremely sad and disappointing. It really hits in a visceral way, because so often Deaf people and people with disabilities are left out of experiencing the things able-bodied take for granted.

According to the official site, everything was supposed to be accessible with the SOTU, before, during, and after the speech. I went to the links provided by the White House on its site, but was just further confused, as the CC was still not working accurately. It looks like the address was streamed through YouTube, which is notorious for its CC not working. As soon as I saw that YouTube was being used, I braced myself for bad CC or no CC. The captions did not line up with what the President was saying; they did not match his lips as they moved and they did not match the sound of the broadcast, all essential things for me and other people who rely on CC. Often, there was a very long delay between the captions and the last thing the president said. CC is supposed to follow the timing of the speaker and the sound made by the media being utilized.

Due to the CC not working well and also not appearing at all in any of the events that were broadcast after the SOTU, such as what appeared to be interviews, and performances, I could not participate on an equal basis in watching the address with other people. I really respect and admire our president and I want to take part in what I consider historic American events. I want to be able to watch President Obama speak, along with everyone else in the country, at the time that it is happening. I want to be able to comment on social media with my friends, like a regular person. I want to be part of the dialogue. And I can’t. I can’t be a part of it.

I can anticipate some of the reactions from hearing people: there were/are captions on the website, what’s the issue? Good CC makes the process of understanding spoken language seamless, and it is what I and many others have gotten used to before the digital age came along and completely disrupted it. Captions that are delayed, as they were on the live stream, are just a headache for me to follow. The words were also running together in parts and the delay was always different, so it was hard to get used to. I have put up with less than wonderful CC in the past because what I was watching was important to me, but it is very tiring. I think a good analogy for able-bodied people might be straining your eyes for a long time. You might be able to see by squinting, albeit not in the optimal way, but after a while it gives you a headache and isn’t worth it. So you’ll seek some other way to get the information if you can, or give up.

That’s the thing about disability: when there are no accommodations made, there is nothing we can do. We’re stuck. When there is no CC or only enough CC to give me a headache, I can’t do anything about it. It’s an intensely isolating feeling, if a familiar one. I admit I’m pretty used to this happening. But the White House? Shouldn’t the White House have amazing CC? The speech was written in advance. It should not be hard at all to have accurate and timely captions. Even a live broadcast that is unscripted can have good captions; the technology exists for it. I’ve seen it happen many a time, mostly before things switched over to digital and live streaming, but even with live streaming it can be done and it has been done. We have amazing technology these days. But the thing is, the tech for CC is not even that complex, if I understand correctly, albeit I am not an expert on this. The standard was set back in the 1980s and 90s. It seems as if people just forgot how to apply it. I feel like if my friend Heather can swiftly and accurately close-caption a video uploaded by our friend Jamie of her twin babies, simply by Googling how to do it, the official site of the White House can figure out the CC. I shouldn’t have to tune into the SOTU after CC has finally been figured out, it should work at the time of the broadcast. Some are saying now the CC is working. I do not know. I am tired of going back and checking it; as far as I can tell there is no CC for anything that occurred after the SOTU, which is the same; and if CC is working now, great, it wasn’t at the time. I encourage Deaf people to weigh in on this. Did the CC at work for you?

Our government needs to follow its own guidelines and its own laws regarding disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, was accepted into law in order for people with disabilities to have access. And an accommodation that does not work is not an accommodation. There is a standard in place for closed captioning that has existed for decades, and it should not be difficult for the United States to figure this out. Deaf people have the right to participate in politics and their community. We have the right to be informed voters and citizens, we have the right to access, and a reason for these rights is so we can have dignity and not be isolated and separated from everyone else. Deaf people need to be able to have the same information as everyone else, that is what equal rights is all about.

Contact: Kate Corbett Pollack