Provide Free Captions for People with Hearing Loss on Video Conferencing Platforms

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People with hearing loss have trouble communicating in many situations leading to isolation and loneliness during normal times. Today, amid COVID-19, things are even tougher. In-person conversation has moved online, leaving many people with hearing loss few options for connecting with family and friends, especially seniors who are most at risk for developing virus complications.

Free automatic speech recognition (ASR) captioning for people with hearing loss on video conference platforms like Zoom and Google could make all the difference. Today I pen an open letter to these companies.

An Open Letter To Zoom, Google & Microsoft

Dear Zoom, Google, Microsoft and other video conferencing providers,

Please make free ASR captions available on your platforms for people with hearing loss immediately. In most cases, the technology exists and is integrated into your platform behind a paywall. Providing this service for free for people with hearing loss would not only improve the accessibility of your product, it is also the right thing to do.

Communicating by video call has become the new reality in our COVID-19 world. Video calls are helpful for people with hearing loss because we can see the other person’s face, which helps with lipreading. But in meetings with many participants, or even in one on one conversations with people using weak microphones or laggy internet connections, video is not enough for understanding. Captioning is necessary.

The gold standard of captioning is Communication Access Realtime Translation or CART, where a live transcriber types what is spoken in real time. But technology is rapidly catching up and now a handful of high quality automatic speech recognition (ASR) options do exist. In these times of change, an ASR alternative can be acceptable for most communications.

What can Zoom do today to improve accessibility?
Zoom provides the option to offer CART through its service, but CART requires the availability of a live transcriber in the meeting and is very expensive. This is unrealistic for most people with hearing loss living in this economic crisis brought on by COVID-19.

Zoom also also allows for integration with Otter, a popular speech-to-text app used effectively by many people with hearing loss for its high quality ASR, but only for paid Zoom accounts. Zoom must remove this paywall for people with hearing loss.

What can Google do today to improve accessibility? 
Google has long been a leader in providing accessibility tools for people with hearing loss. It speech-to-text app Live Transcribe is fast and accurate and its Live Caption app brings ASR captioning to digital media. Google falls short when it comes to its video conferencing product, which limits its ASR captioning to its paid G-suite customers. Google must remove this paywall for people with hearing loss.

What can Microsoft do today to improve accessibility?
Microsoft offers free captioning through Powerpoint, Microsoft Stream and its Skype video chat (up to 50 people), but it restricts access to captioning for larger meetings behind a pay wall. Microsoft must remove the paywall for people with hearing loss.

Sincerely, 

Shari Eberts   Founder, LivingWithHearingLoss.com

Please share my words and add your own. Together, we can bring about the change we need for people with hearing loss to remain engaged and productive in today’s challenging times.