“We’re trying really, really hard,” she said.
“I was sort of by virtue of being employed and Twitter able to see and you Spaces before the war the water public was a small percentage of the pop quiz,” a live caption of Browning’s remarks in the Twitter Space read. Browning actually told the audience that as a Twitter employee he was able to see new Spaces before a small percentage of the public was.
For over 30 years, DHH people fought for captioning. More people r now relying on technology during coronavirus. Shaylee Mansfield, Deaf girl, had enough! She sends a loud message to @instagram to add #instacaptioning on their platform for over 400 Deaf & hard of hearing people. pic.twitter.com/1V0IOqPqcz
Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said in an email that companies introducing captioning also have to look at different factors that can impact transcription, such as background noise, the number of speakers and the quality of the sound. Not only does the captioning need to be easy to use, it should be turned on from the start as opposed to requiring users to opt in. They should also be easy to edit and offer ways for people to customize captions to fit their needs — especially if they are deaf and blind.
Midway through the conversation, held on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, other problems popped up. Listeners could no longer hear what Browning was saying, giving hundreds of Twitter users a taste of what it’s like to be completely left out of a conversation.
McFeely says she’s often had to “search high and low” for a viral video that’s been properly captioned or has a text description. One of her daughters, deaf YouTuber-turned-actor Shaylee Mansfield, expressed her frustration in a video about the lack of captions on Facebook-owned Instagram.
About 430 million people, or more than 5% of the world’s population, require rehabilitation for disabling hearing loss with the majority of people living in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization. By 2050, about one in 10 people is projected to have disabling hearing loss.
Sheena McFeely, a 36-year-old deaf creator and advocate in Texas, says she knows about Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse but has been hesitant to try them. She worries they likely won’t be accessible or properly captioned.
On Thursday, Jeremy Browning, a Twitter product manager, gave the public a behind-the-scenes look at a new feature the company built for live audio chats. Not everyone, though, could understand what he was saying.
At the time, Instagram Stories, which allows people to post content including videos that vanishes in 24 hours, didn’t have automatic captioning. The feature didn’t arrive until May, when Instagram rolled out a sticker that automatically transcribes speech in Stories. Instagram first introduced Stories nearly five years ago. Short-form video app TikTok launched auto-captions a month earlier.
“A product or feature without access is not a finished product,” he said in a Twitter direct message. “It will take time and probably money, too, but access equals engagement, and in the world of social media, engagement often leads to revenue.”
Accessibility as an ‘afterthought’
Liam O’Dell, a 24-year-old freelance UK journalist and campaigner who describes himself as mildly deaf, has pointed out on his website that Twitter’s voice tweets and Clubhouse aren’t accessible to the deaf because of the lack of captions. He’s also tested the captions in Twitter Spaces and also found they were “far from perfect.”
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Accessibility should not be an afterthought. (1/3) https://t.co/9GRWaHU6fR
“Automated captioning is improving but can vary from pretty good to atrocious,” he said.
Last year, Twitter apologized after a backlash of complaints about an audio-sharing feature in tweets that wasn’t made accessible to the hearing-impaired. In September, Twitter announced it was introducing two new teams that will focus on accessibility.
Backlash fuels push for more accessibility
“It’s a bittersweet feeling because all the accessibility features made possible did not come without backlash, pushback and criticism” from the hearing-impaired community, McFeely said in a text. Social media companies, she said, need to do a better job of marketing their accessibility features and hiring more people with disabilities to work on their products.
Fittingly, Browning hosted the conversation on Spaces, Twitter’s live audio product. The audio chat tool has live captioning, a feature meant to help hearing-impaired people. Twitter users trying to follow the conversation solely through the captions likely had a tough time deciphering Browning’s words.
Making social media more accessible is an ongoing issue that has long frustrated people with disabilities, discouraging some people from trying new products. Even if there are improvements, the quality of the accessibility features is often poor or tough to find.
Social media companies, including Facebook, are embracing live audio after seeing startup Clubhouse burst onto the scene. High-profile celebrities like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, TV personality Oprah and actor Kevin Hart have joined the invite-only app. Both Clubhouse and Twitter are working on ways to make their products more accessible. But Twitter’s glitchy audio chat provides a stark reminder that these features still exclude hundreds of millions of hearing-impaired people from online conversations.
Gurpreet Kaur, who oversees global accessibility at Twitter, said the company is working on improving accessibility for all of its products, including captioning in Twitter Spaces. Speakers currently have to turn on automatic captions, and Twitter knows the transcriptions can be inaccurate. Sometimes, she said, it takes a lot of focus groups and discussions with advocates to make sure the company isn’t creating a “Band-Aid solution.” Because technology is constantly evolving, Kaur said she doesn’t believe that a product will ever be perfect.