Is There a Place for Deaf Users In the Audio Boom?
Audio is booming online as never before, but Clubhouse’s much-hyped pioneers and Spotify’s celebrity podcasters aren’t the only ones making noise. Creators of every variety are experimenting and finding audiences on platforms new and old.
Sound On is a series of nofilter articles on the coolest trends and innovators in the emerging audioscape. Browse them all here.
Brands have gotten the (voice) memo: Audio is the next wave of social media. Text-based apps like Twitter are introducing voice features like Spaces to compete with the rise of Clubhouse, and TikTok has popularized the audio meme. But where does that leave deaf and hard of hearing users already for whom many platforms are already less than accessible?
Even before the audio boom highlighted the disparity, app accessibility was not where it needed to be. Often, the onus is on individual creators to make their content accessible, but most platforms neither require nor incentivize it. And when advocacy groups and volunteers try to facilitate accessibility, they are sometimes hindered, as when YouTube removed their community caption feature last year, prompting outrage from deaf and hard of hearing users.
Apps that utilize audio have an opportunity to set this right in 2021. For now, here are where the major platforms stand. (Note: Not every company responded to my requests for comment; we’ve included statements and information from those that did, and will update this story with any new responses.)
Many TikTok videos include real-time closed captions—thanks to a user-lead push. Utilizing third-party apps like Rev, Veed, and Captions for TikTok, or manually captioning their videos using TikTok’s text feature, the app’s community has created a culture in which including captions is akin to contributing to a mutual aid society—essential support for those in need, but in lieu of any official resources.
TikTok has introduced features like text-to-speech for the visually impaired and photosensitive epilepsy warnings, but overall, doesn't yet offer tools for deaf and hard of hearing users.
"We're committed to helping everyone create, share, and enjoy videos on TikTok,” a spokesperson says in a statement. “And we're continuing to develop new products to make TikTok more accessible for everyone."
In the fall, Instagram announced automatic captions for IGTV videos, and the platform’s newest app, Threads, automatically captions video notes. While the purpose of Threads is to share videos with close friends, the captioned video can be downloaded and then uploaded publicly to the platform. You can also manually add subtitles to your Instagram Stories using the text feature.
Over the summer, citing lack of usage and abuse, YouTube announced it would sunset their Community Contributions feature, which allowed members of the YouTube community to submit their own captions for videos. YouTube pointed me to its other tools, which include manual captions uploaded by a given video’s creator and automatic captions provided by YouTube.
For people like journalist Liam O’Dell, the move to eliminate Community Contributions was a reminder of how YouTube was already failing its deaf and hard of hearing users.
“I would like to see a wider campaign and more publicity from YouTube about the importance of captioned content, and the benefits this can bring, such as a video ranking higher in the platform’s algorithm,” he told me in August.
The most buzzed-about social media app is the least accessible for deaf and hard of hearing users. As an audio-only app, it was never going to be an ideal place for the hearing impaired, but, as reports have shown, the company hasn’t even made a gesture towards accessibility for its users.
“It just hasn’t put in an effort to make me want to utilize their platform,” Janna Cowper, a Clubhouse user with an auditory disability, told UX Collective. “I can follow some conversations pretty well. But there are many people who don’t. Without live captions, I can miss a lot of the conversation. With different voices, my brain has to do a swap to figure out who’s talking even though the app does have a highlight to show who’s talking. I process sounds about a half a second behind—like reading a book in your head, so it can be challenging to keep up.”
Spotify does have some accessibility tools, but they are unevenly distributed. The app has a partnership with Genius to display lyrics in real time, but only for select songs. Beyond that, users can use the equalizer tool in their settings to optimize audio for vibrations from deep sounds such as drums and bass guitar.
It’s up to the individual podcaster to make their work accessible. Some popular podcasts, like The Daily and Office Ladies, provide transcripts, but Spotify and Apple don’t require them. Crime Junkie hosts ASL versions of each of its episodes on its YouTube channel.
Other popular podcasts, like You’re Wrong About, My Favorite Murder, and Armchair Expert, rely on volunteers and third parties to generate and upload transcripts to places like Podgist, but those can be inaccurate and hard to decipher.