Life Without Captions

Do you use captioning?  On TV, perhaps, or in the theater, or on internet videos?  Perhaps you enjoy CART (Communication Access RealtimeTranslation) at live events?  

It’s not easy to explain the simple power of turning the captions “ON” for people who have difficulty hearing the spoken word. It’s the difference between dark and light, confusion and clarity, misinterpretation and understanding. Instead of being locked outside in a storm, we’re chatting with friends around a fire.

In whatever form we use it, captioning brings the spoken word to life. It turns blah-de-blah-de-ya-da into meaningful conversation. It gives us access to people, and that’s what we’re all here for, right? So what happens when we lose the words, when there’s no captioning to fill in the blanks? 

Watching the Rio Olympics for 10 days, captions told me what was going on in the events—especially helpful if you don’t understand the finer points of a sport, or the rules, or even what they have to do to win. Captioning keeps people like me in the game. Otherwise all I see is a bunch of guys or girls running around, attached to paddles, balls or bicycle handles. They’re jumping up in the air or down in the water. It’s easy enough to tell from the players’ faces and the crowd’s reactions that points have been scored or the game has been won. But when the TV camera angles aren’t good or if the camera isn’t on the commentator’s face, I need captioning.

Captions in the right place
Captions in the right place

And the caption wasn’t problem-free, either. Those lovely strings of words often covered the athletes’ faces or feet of players or—even worse—the score box in the upper left corner of the screen.  I could see the tippy-tops of the numbers and, ridiculously, I caught myself trying to peer over the captioning, as if I could see behind it to the score. (Reminds me of the woman with hearing loss who told me that, in a heated conversation with her hearing husband, she found herself looking sideways at the TV to see if by some miracle, there were captions of their conversation!)   

But as imperfect as it was, the captioning gave me the inside scoop from the commentators:  “Nerves are starting to show.” “Whoa, that mistake is going to haunt him for the rest of his life.” “Beautiful form—but is it enough to win?” “Folks, this match is about as good as it gets.” Without that insight, beach volleyball would have been nothing more than a collection of oiled, sandy muscles and cool sunglasses.

But real life is a not a captioned event.  When the technology goes off, so do the captions. Two days later I was sitting on a real beach, watching my son play in a volleyball tournament. No captions and no commentary, because my husband wanted to focus on the game and not have to repeat everything twice. I managed to figure it out and just enjoyed seeing my son’s passion for the sport.Joel vball

We can follow rapid-fire TV conversations because the captioning keeps up, more or less. It’s not always perfect in live TV, because the speakers aren’t perfect; they talk fast, stepping on each other’s words and even the hearing people have trouble following. But at a real life dinner party, we get knocked to the sidelines almost immediately, because our heads can’t swivel fast enough to follow the lips. Technology is improving daily; I think captioned dinner parties are still in the future, but there are wonderful new voice-to-text apps that caption a two person conversation amazingly well.

Here’s where captioning would make my life better and easier:

  • In a store, when the salesperson is ringing up a sale—why do they always seem to say something just as you lean over to punch in your numbers? The captions could show on a little tablet beside the cash register and debit machines.
  • In-flight service: not the safety demo—I’ve heard so many that I could give it myself if the flight attendant needed a break—but whatever the captain or first officer decide to yammer on about. I can usually catch “ 39,000 feet…” and hope it means what it usually means. The captain’s captions could appear on the screen in front of my seat. (Airlines, I hope you’re taking notes as you read this!)
  • Grocery store announcements—what special am I missing out on? I want the same notice that there’s a 2-for-1 coconut milk special as everyone else. LED screens at the end of each aisle would be awesome. And as for what the cashier is saying, see the first point above.

We love captioning. Life without it puts us off-track, confuses us and exhausts us. Sometimes we just throw up our hands and tune out. But when it is available, we use it and are grateful. Now, we want more of it, in more places.


About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.


  1. I found one way to have captions at my disposal – I set up my own CART captioning firm! I love being able to request support when I need it. These writers do a fantastic job for us deaf and hard of hearing people. I would like to see more go into this career as it benefits so many.

  2. Nowadays it is much cheaper to conduct professional development via online videos, especially in the adult literacy instruction sector where I worked until until I felt compelled to retire. The reason I felt so compelled was that the authorities refused to supply closed captioning to training videos because of the expense (they are expensive, I know), and they also refused to provide print support, or even a print-out of the spoken words of the video. In the past, we instructors took our professional development training in live classes where I was able to speech read and have someone take notes for me. With the advent of online professional development via the captionless videos, I was not able to keep up. I hold a masters degree in my field of work and have many years of hands on experience. I was and still am sad that I was literally forced to retire because of my hearing challenges. Unfortunately, I specialized in adult learners who had learning problems among which many were undiagnosed hearing problems. Now these people will be taught by only those who can hear those videos but who have no experience in what it is like to be hearing challenged and not aware of it. As usual in adult education, the underdog loses out.

    1. Dorothy thanks for writing. I don’t know where you worked or who the “authorities” in question are. But if it’s in the US, this is in contravention of the law. If it’s in Canada, it is still an infringement of human rights, not to mention profound ignorance on their part. I will also say that captioning training videos is not that expensive compared to the overall costs of making the video. It’s been an easy process for many years now – and I know because my own video “Unheard Voices” was both closed and open-captioned. There are also many proven benefits of captioning on materials for adult learners, including those with hearing loss or literacy issues, as well as people learning in a second language. If these videos are still being used, and you still have a voice, some input, it’s not too late. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Totally understand where you are coming from. In the past, I just went along with it, or skipped the video and hoped I wouldn’t really mess up.
      Now, I just refuse. If they can’t provide a way for me to learn the material, then it’s their problem, not mine. I won’t be held responsible for messing up something that wasn’t communicated clearly to me.
      But even, as Gael says, if it is illegal, it is still done and the push to get them captioned is a lot of effort so it is easier to ignore them.

  3. Great article. So many people who could benefit from CC on TV and cinema dont know about them.

    Although we don’t have CapTel phones here in Canada ((yet), you can now get an app for both iPhone and Android smartphones which allows you to make calls (but unfortunately not receive them) and have the speakers words recognised and displayed on the screen, almost in real time… The app is call RogerVoice and is free to try… See for details. Not perfect, but you can call virtually anywhere, and it supports several languages.
    (Full disclosure: I am a beta tester for the service, and helped with crowd-funding!)

  4. Am I missing out the latest technology? I read captioning on TV and YouTube. Wish there was something for going out to the movies.

    1. Have a look at CaptionFish I think it is called. It is a website that lists all movies that are captioned in your area. There are now two brands of glasses and two “cup holder” types so you should be able to find a theater in your area that handles these.

  5. As a professor and researcher that lectures an average 50-60 seminars and conventions each year, as I have going back about 40 years I can attest that life without captions is indeed a major hold up in education and daily life, for that matter. In the US, which has captioning on virtually everything and easily accessible–as soon as I step one foot outside the US, though, access is difficult if even possible, and very, very places accommodate with captioning and other technology. Amazingly, most countries that are so sparse on such technologies seem to think they offer as much as the US—but I spend an enormous amount of time trying to access captioning–a real hassle in the best of countries and impossible in all the rest.

  6. Love your blog, Gael. Just a bit surprised that captioning of theater events wasn’t mentioned. The technology now exists to transmit closed captions to theatergoers via a caption reader device or their own smartphone or tablet. (For example, see Theater managers are you listening??? Our hearing loss community is only asking for the the same opportunity as everyone else.

    1. It would be great if all theaters had captioning at all performances, but you can find out which do through TDF-TAP, and get relatively inexpensive seats for many shows if you sign up early.

  7. I attend a great many lectures that DO NOT have closed captioning.
    It would help a great deal as many lecturers are NOT Canadian born and do NOT speak the Queen’s English sufficiently well enough for me to understand them clearly.

  8. My husband and I use captioning on our tvs for years. He is the hard of hearing one, but I got used to watching it. I discovered that I have a processing problem and I miss lots of words on tv. Captioning helps me a lot. It is not only for the deaf and hard of hearing.

    Also, saw Gael at at Hearing Loss Association meeting in Rochester, NY. a few years ago.

  9. Have you seen the “bad lipreading” videos online? It’s amazing how radically speech can be misunderstand based (solely) on lipreading. (Maybe a little less amazing to the hard-of-hearing….)

  10. I never knew captions existed until I joined an HLAA chapter in 1993. I had been hard of hearing since 1940. Captions on the TV became available for many programs in 1993 on TV’s over 13″. Captions provide accommodations for those who are Deaf, late deafened, and hard of hearing. They also help children learn to read and for those learning English as their second language. Many hard of hearing people are never told by their hearing health provider that captions are available in the movies, theater and especially the TV. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is another accommodation that is not always available for those who require it. Especially in Court. It is time we people who know about captioning should always share this information with everyone we know even if they claim they can hear.

  11. Here is the future as I imagine it. In 10 years perhaps, everyone will be wearing hearables, small wireless earphones that sit comfortably in the ears. They’re internet connected hearing aids.

    If everybody can hear sound straight from the internet, there is no reason to have large speakers push sound waves into large venues such as a stadium, train stations or airports.

    Just like notifications pop-up into your phone, you can subscribe to you son’s game commentary via your hearables. If you weren’t wearing them, the stadium will sound unusually quiet, but people will seem to be entertained anyway, because sound is going straight into their ears from the internet.

    We’re already experiencing this now with phones, it often happens that a group of people are sitting in waiting room in silence, all consuming some information from their phone screens.

    Most analog sounds will become digital, online. We will no longer need a set of six or more speakers in a car to reach optimal acoustics, if we can directly control the equalisation via our smart ears.

    The reason why sound going digital is important, is because it will be clean, free from distortion. While it is very complex to capture a commenter voice in the middle of a noisy stadium, with digital sound we’re working with very high definition sound, information in fact, that can be manipulated by the computers in our ears.

    Captioning technology will have improved too, so with clear input signal, we’ll be able to use captioning services like Google’s directly from the internet.

    And, last piece of the puzzle will be our smart glasses, that will display the captions on subtle screens at the edge of our eyes.

    But what about real conversations with real people? Well, I wonder if face recognition AI will be so advanced that they will caption lips reading into our eyes too, so that we can have subtitles under every face we’re talking to.

    A bit down the line I agree, but I’ve just expanded on current technology trends, and I haven’t even touched on the advances of sound processing, like source separation.

  12. Oh boy, Gael, you got it!
    I want my own personal CART provider at my side at all times, especially during family dinners, and even more especially during family dinners when emotions run high and everyone gets exercised. What ARE they talking about? It drives me crazy, as readers of my blog are all too aware of.
    As for airlines, which you mention in passing, it’s a safety hazard. I wrote about this recently on Huff Post: Memo to Airlines: We Can’t Hear You!

  13. Wow! You hit the nail on the head! You know how I feel. We have family dinners and somehow I end up on the end. Conversations are passing back and forth and I miss probably 2/3 of it. Right now I have free TV and only 1/3 of it is actually captioned. I can’t afford satellite or cable. I am almost 60 yrs., so I could probably get a free caption phone although in most cases, I can hear on my cell phone as long as I hold it carefully on my ear. But I can’t afford internet/landline phone service that it requires to operate the captioned phone. So I do the best that I am capable of and appreciate the fact that I am capable of hearing some. I am not asking for pity, just more products to make my life easier and more enjoyable.

    1. My experience exactly. Same age too. I think it can’t be too far off for a viable speech-to-text app on our cellphones that at least give us “functional” captions. I mean it takes voice commands now, so it can’t be far off. Being able to make use of it in a theater is another matter. It would have to have some enclosure so as not to bother everyone else.

  14. Thanks Gael. – Place 2 B 4 Captioning Advocacy. Gael belongs.
    Strength in numbers. Join soon and get in touch – we love to talk! Words, words, words, our visual language.
    Captions Communicate!
    Best to all,

    1. clarification – Gael is a CCAC member for a long time, thank goodness :-). We invite others.
      the items she mentions would all be great CAPs in the CCAC – captioning advocacy projects.

  15. Gael! Yes! I once stood in front of a small audience attending the Mayor’s Summit and explained that without captions, my life feels like a foreign film. Even the Hearing Folks got that. P.S. Handsome son. Just saying.

      1. A foreign film – love that! But not French or Italian or something where I can get the gist of what’s being said. More like Albanian, or Schezuan or something…that kind of foreign film.

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