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Zoom Announces Automatic Captioning Will Be Free. It's Long Overdue.

Zoom has become one of the most downloaded video conferencing apps of 2020, driven by profound changes from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as telehealth models and virtual education. Even interviews, jobs and meetings have shifted to a virtual setting. The app allows individual users and educational, health care and other organizational sectors to conduct virtual meetings in real-time. Users can utilize both HD video and audio to communicate. Other features include a chat box, screen-sharing and the option to record meetings.

As a disabled person who lives with minor hearing loss and auditory processing disorder, I have been unable to use Zoom with equal access. Yet, I must frequently use the app to participate in virtual meetings or “hang out” with friends.

Although remote options increase accessibility for many disabled people, free Zoom accounts, including educational accounts, do not include automatic closed captioning services, which require a monthly fee. This process leaves people with auditory disabilities no choice but to attempt to pay for an accessibility feature required for equality. It interferes with our access to any virtual interaction.

Finally, Zoom officially made a statement on February 23 as part of its commitment to provide an accessible platform to diverse communities:

Among the Zoom Meetings accessibility features we offer to all users are manual closed captioning, keyboard accessibility, pinning or spotlighting interpreter video, screen reader support, and a range of accessibility settings. Now we are excited to announce that we are looking to take our efforts a step further and are working towards making automatic closed captioning —what we refer to as “Live Transcription”— available to all of our users in the fall of 2021.

If you use a free account and require access to automatic closed captioning before the fall, Zoom also stated they will provide the service to meeting hosts upon request through this Google Form.

The statement came after the disability community did not allow this gatekeeping to go unaddressed. By requiring users to pay for closed captioning services, a recent class action lawsuit in December claimed Zoom violated Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination of disabled people in places of public accommodation. Likewise, a petition and open letter started by hearing loss advocate Shari Eberts has garnered over 80,000 supporters.

Julia Métraux, one of my connections in the disability community who is hard of hearing, recently went viral on February 22 after she Tweeted, “It’s ableist that @zoom_us still does not have free captioning. Hard of hearing people like me should not have to pay for accessibility.”

The day after her Tweet went viral, Zoom made their official announcement and issued the statement to her. In her important article on the matter, Julia wrote that while she is happy Zoom is making this change, it should not have taken this long. “Disabled people need accessibility, but we also need non-disabled people to realize why giving us accommodations should not be optional.”

Indeed, automatic closed captioning is not exactly new — it was just only offered to paid users. Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Skype all already offer free captioning. The current manual closed captioning feature through Zoom requires another willing user to type captions in real-time. This feature is also sometimes hard to capture as users look back and forth at a transcription box covering the screen. Thus, an automatic closed captioning option, although not perfect, is essential for accessibility.

Especially when someone has their camera off, I might miss chunks of information when I can’t see their lips and expressions. Automatic closed captioning will allow me to still understand what people are saying when they have their camera off. They are also important for people who do not speak English as their first language.

Zoom fatigue — a common new term that describes the burnout and exhaustion associated with frequent videoconferencing — is exacerbated by the lack of automatic closed captioning. One theoretical argumentation from Stanford researchers examined four parts that contribute to Zoom fatigue: excessive close-up eye-contact, constantly seeing yourself in real-time, the reduction of mobility while at a desk, and increased cognitive load from constantly identifying social cues over a virtual setting. Personally, I would have included the simple fact that people are often inflexibly “overworked” as well. However, for many disabled people, these experiences are our baseline. For us, it is not temporary either. For one, some of us already live with mobility disabilities. Second, what we already referred to as “concentration fatigue” is caused by heavy periods of intense concentration exhausting the attention mechanisms required in day-to-day activities.

For example, those of us who live with auditory disabilities frequently rely on social cues and lip-reading to carefully figure out what hearing people are saying. Imagine the constant demand to piece together information throughout school, work and daily interactions. Imagine being left out. Those of us who are disabled have had to navigate inaccessible spaces and symptoms long before the pandemic, and it is disheartening that we are still not being considered in these situations.

I have been unable to relate to the sudden discovery of “Zoom fatigue” because it is my regular from living with auditory disabilities, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, and multiple mental illnesses. Certainly, automatic closed captioning is one way to increase accessibility and ameliorate fatigue.

As described by disability studies scholar Robert McRuer in “Crip Theory,” “An accessible society, according to the best, critically disabled perspectives, is not simply one with ramps and Braille signs on “public” buildings, but one in which our ways of relating to, and depending on, each other have been reconfigured.”

I am excited that the automatic closed captioning option will be available to all users in Zoom, but accessibility should not be an afterthought. Accessibility should be integrated into the process. Disabled people continuously have to demand it, which adds to the exhaustion. Nondisabled people need to recognize these issues and advocate with us, too.

Getty image by Fizkes.

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