John Krasinski’s thriller “A Quiet Place” focuses on the Abbott family, who communicate almost exclusively by American Sign Language (ASL). The family’s daughter Regan is played by Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf both in-character and off-screen. Simmonds said to Joseph Amodio in an interview for Newsday: “I have no problem with how people communicate. But I think it’s important … for everyone to be open to learn sign language.” ASL is one tool that the deaf and hard of hearing (HOH) community often uses to communicate with one another and with hearing people. Where ASL is absent, closed captioning fills some interpretation gaps.
Because of the movie’s plot, which centers on silence to keep the characters safe from sound-seeking creatures, on-screen captions were used through the majority of the film. These subtitles were critical for understanding the film’s ASL for those not fluent. While closed captioning assisted viewers in enjoying “A Quiet Place,” subtitles are not standard for box-office films. In hearing communities, the absence of subtitles is rarely felt. In the deaf/HOH community, having no way to seamlessly understand a movie means they often don’t attend theater showings and instead wait for DVD releases, which may have subtitles.
Some theaters have experimented with assistive technology in recent years, such as glasses that project subtitles for individual viewers. But these options are limited and come with design flaws – some pairs feel heavy on the head, leave marks on the face or display captions off-sync with the video. There’s an easier solution here: make closed captions standardized in theaters, at events and for television.
The benefits of standardized closed captioning extend beyond the deaf/HOH community. In America, closed captioning can assist individuals who have learned English as their second language. Being able to cross-check the audio message against captions can help comprehension and retention, for any viewer. Mary Ellen Dello Stritto and Katie Linder conducted research for EDUCAUSE Review on the use of closed captioning in higher education institutions. They found that, among students reporting disabilities and those reporting none, usage of closed captioning was comparable — students without disabilities reported “…only about 10 percentage points less than those reporting disabilities.” Further, more than half of students found captions helpful for focusing and retaining information.
Adding captions onto mass media wouldn’t be a detriment. They’re formatted into small lines at the bottom of the screen, easily ignored if a viewer doesn’t want to use them. Standardized captions would help video content reach a wider audience for consumption. Rather than leaving millions in the dark, content creators can invite them to their material with open arms and subtitles that help anyone who needs interpretation or somewhere to focus. Standardized captions are no different than having accessibility ramps or Braille on door placards. These are optional supplements to everyday experiences — helping those who seek them and detracting nothing from those who don’t.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 900 million people will have some form of hearing loss by 2050. Content producers have no excuse for ignoring closed captioning. If viewers of “A Quiet Place” or foreign films can handle subtitles, they can manage them on all media. Society sets the rules for who we consider “disabled” — a term falling out of favor, because it implies that individuals are inherently flawed only because they function differently than others. Changing our focus from “disability” services to “accessibility” services is an extended hand of respect. “Accessibility” speaks to the foundational mission of helping all people achieve equal access to services and experiences, and not relying on the sometimes negative, alienating effect of “disabled.”
Student Accessibility Services on the UMaine campus offers assistance ranging from housing and test-taking accommodations to advisement. Students can get involved if classmates request notetakers for particular classes, or through spreading the word to peers who may benefit from their services. UMaine offers ASL courses for students interested in becoming a communicable ally to the deaf/HOH community.
Standardizing closed captioning would invite millions of people into theaters on equal footing with their fellow movie-goers, at no loss to anyone.