Caption Tool Controversy Highlights YouTube’s Inaccessibility, Deaf Creators Say
Do deaf viewers matter to YouTube? Some creators and accessibility advocates say no. A special feature that allowed creators to easily caption videos for non-hearing fans will be discontinued on September 28. The Community Contributions featured allowed anyone to submit captions for a video, but YouTube says less than 0.001% of channels actually utilized the feature. However, three YouTuber creators and viewers I spoke to insist YouTube never gave the tool a fair shot, burying it in creators’ dashboards and never once promoting it to its over 70 million followers on Twitter.
There are several options for captioning YouTube videos: The auto-caption feature, which uses AI to roughly approximate captions in the viewer’s preferred language; manual captions, uploaded by the creators themselves; or crowdsourced captions in a variety of languages from the Community Contribution tool, which allowed the video to reach not just deaf and hard of hearing viewers, but other viewers around the world. It seems like a no-brainer.
But “creators have reported that the [Community Contribution] feature was hard to find on their dashboard in the first place,” Liam O’Dell, a UK-based freelance journalist who is deaf, explains over email. O’Dell was the first to widely-report the news on his website. “Then, in terms of promotion, people have said they weren’t notified when a new community contribution track was submitted.”
YouTuber Tiffany Ferguson, who makes sure to caption her videos about internet culture for her over 590,000 subscribers, echoed these frustrations in a phone call.
“There may have been a lot of videos that people have sent captions or transcribed captions for that I haven't even seen,” she says, explaining that the tool itself is difficult to find.
And as deaf YouTuber Rikki Poynter, who has over 90,000 subscribers, points out: Even if you found the feature, there was only one way to use it.
“The feature is only available to use on desktop when most people are using YouTube on their phones,” she writes in an email. “There's so much [YouTube] just needed to do from the beginning.”
“I’ve also found out that community captions were never once tweeted about by the YouTube or TeamYouTube Twitter accounts,” O’Dell adds. “Promotion leads to awareness, which leads to usage. How can they say that nobody used it when they didn’t tell people much about it existing in the first place?”
The removal of Community Contributions puts the onus of accessibility on creators, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Creators should be more thoughtful about catering those with disabilities. For instance, Ferguson hired a user by the pen name of Bernice Panders to transcribe and caption videos for her, at a rate of $2.50 per minute.
“I've been trying to raise awareness about it, especially to my YouTube friends that I know are doing it full time,” Ferguson says. “I just think it's something that you don't know about unless you have a viewer or a follower who might bring it up to you.”
But Ferguson is an anomaly—in general, creators don’t think about captions and accessibility when uploading their content because, as O’Dell says, YouTube doesn’t do enough to incentivize it.
“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,” O’Dell suggests.
A YouTube spokesperson declined to comment, but did provide information about the platform’s plan moving forward. Manual and auto-captions aren’t going away, and anyone who used the Community Contribution tool for at least three videos in the past 60 days will receive a complimentary six month subscription to Amara.org, a service that captions and translates videos. YouTube has also teased expanding their permissions tool, which lets multiple people access the same account, to allow a tier just for someone to enter an account for the purposes of captioning videos.
“I do have concerns over how this would work in practice,” O’Dell says. “Creators may be able to reach out to past contributors and ask them to caption content, but the other way around may be difficult if a creator has a large audience.”
Plus, depending on how many people can be given a permission role, not every language may have an opportunity to be made available.
In the view of both O’Dell in and Poynter, the answer isn’t to scrap Community Contributions—it’s to improve it. Deaf, hard of hearing, and international users already had a limited experience on the platform even with the feature, and its removal only serves to make things worse.
“YouTube is, in a sense, removing a ‘safety net’ for creators and their captioned and translated content,” O’Dell says. “If a suitable and successful replacement isn’t implemented, then it will negatively impact the viewing experience of deaf and disabled users like me."