YouTube is dropping Community Captions

“So YouTube has basically said f*** you to disabled creators and viewers.”

This is what Deaf activist Rikki Poynter said after hearing that community captions will no longer be available. 

YouTube has an estimated 1 billion unique monthly visitors, more than the next 14 video streaming sites combined.

YouTube Help announced:

“Community contributions will be discontinued across all channels after September 28, 2020. Community contributions allowed viewers to add closed captions, subtitles, and title/descriptions to videos. This feature was rarely used and had problems with spam/abuse so we’re removing them to focus on other creator tools. You can still use your own captions, automatic captions, and third-party tools and services. You have until September 28, 2020 to publish your community contributions before they’re removed.”

Deaf DJ MCGeezer told me:

“Bro this is soul destroying, how can we watch a documentary or music video without captions? We deaf people won’t understand what’s been said and miss out on important information. I use them all the time. Very worrying time and deaf people get left out as always. I don’t know any alternative solution.”

These are just some of the reactions from the Deaf Community to YouTube’s decision.

I’m a YouTube addict. Ever since I got my first smartphone with unlimited data I’m hardly ever off it (and even more since Android allowed me to split the screen and use other apps while watching YouTube).

In 2010, I wrote an article for Scope’s magazine Disability Now about YouTube’s introduction of captions. Then it seemed to be at the forefront of Deaf accessibility.

Rikki expressed her frustration in her vlog: 

“YouTube has officially screwed over all the deaf, and really the disabled community in general, because YouTube has officially decided to get rid of community contributed captions. And YouTube: if you send me an email response to this video, like you did with the first video, I probably wouldn’t suggest it because it’s very likely to go straight into the trash, because I’m done! I’m tired!”

YouTube’s reasons are that the feature isn’t used much and is open to sabotage and abuse. Rikki took apart these excuses:

“If anybody’s not using it, it’s because your system was always broken and we told you this and you’ve done absolutely nothing to fix it…and you never really promoted it…The YouTube community contribution stuff is only available on desktop. Most people are using smartphones to consume YouTube…you’re pushing away the majority of the market…The adding feature is tucked away so that you can’t really find it, nobody knows how to turn captions on to begin with…This is the internet, we all know that people will troll on the internet, so why wasn’t that kind of thought of before and also, this has been going on for years and nobody has done anything about it.”

As to why deaf people cannot rely on automatic captions:

“Automatic captioning is not good. Is it way better than what it was five, something years ago? Oh yeah, the words are a little bit more correct…but the grammar is horrible, everything is just one run-on sentence, the timing is terrible…it’s so slow and clunky.”

Rikki also pointed out that colleges rely heavily on Community Captions. A lot of them do not provide transcripts or captioned videos.

Emma Wolfe of Kidderminster started a petition against this move:

“There are a great many people who rely on captions to enjoy content posted on YouTube, for a variety of reasons. Some viewers are hard of hearing, some have auditory processing disorders, and some watch content created in a language other than their own.

Community captions have allowed these communities to come together and enjoy content they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. Removing community captions locks so many viewers out of the experience.

Most creators will be able to create captions for one, maybe two languages, but that’s going to take a lot of time which they may not have. Community captions ensured that many videos were accessible that otherwise would not be. People from so many different backgrounds, working together to enjoy content together –  why remove that?

We’re calling on Google to reverse the decision to remove the community captions feature.”

In August 2019, YouTube announced that creators would have to approve their community captions before they could be published which led to a fall in their use.

YouTube has offered a free six month subscription to the caption site Amara, part of the Participatory Culture Foundation. Its executive director, Dean Jansen said:

“What we do know, right now, is that humans are currently critical in making high-quality and accurate captions and/or translated subtitles. This is why we, as a nonprofit, are focused on creating tools and services for accessibility that are easy for people to learn and use…As a nonprofit working on tools for ensuring that it is easier to caption and subtitle video, we hope to help move the technology forward in a positive way. Amara has been here since 2011. We will continue to do our work, and can only hope that in light of YouTube’s decision, our technology can be of help to those who need it.”

Toby Corazzo is a 14 year old deaf blogger. I asked him how much he uses community captions:

“I used them whenever there was an option for them, they are usually more accurate than automated captions. It did have an impact on what I watched since the content I watch can have things like voiceovers or a person talking directly to the camera. Most content creators will not know that the feature is going and also may not understand automated captions aren’t as accurate. Although they are able to add captions themselves, they will probably not have the time to do so.”

I asked him if he had contacted Google:

“I haven’t, but if I did, I would mention the fact that it would be easier on the content creator if someone else added captions. It personally helps me and probably a lot of people too, so I’m sure someone would’ve mentioned that to Google.”

I asked if he believed Google’s reasons for ending the feature:

“On some levels, I do agree, and I have seen ways people can misuse them. With Google stating the feature hasn’t been used much, I personally disagree on this because a lot of the videos I watch do come with community captions anyway.”

Finally, I asked him what YouTube means to him:

“For me, I feel it is important to access YouTube during this lockdown period since most lessons I had been set had a link to YouTube videos explaining what to do. YouTube is like a teacher to me because if you have something you need to learn, you can do that on the site. For other deaf people, I think they’d agree because it’s a simple app with lots of interaction to learn many things.”

Because YouTube does not fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are not obliged to provide community captions.

Rikki tweeted:

“I told them for a full freakin’ hour why we need community contribution. Not just for deaf people so more channels will have captions, but for disabled creators who can’t manually do them or have the income to pay for them: which is most of us. They do not care about us. Unfortunately, if they didn’t listen to me when we had our meeting, and didn’t listen to everyone telling them off in the comments months ago, I don’t think they’ll listen now.”

Hopefully this won’t be the case if enough YouTube creators sign the petition.

Google was contacted but did not reply.

Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.