How do you follow a television programme if you are deaf or hard of hearing? Well,
you turn on the subtitles, of course. You can then watch the programme action, and
read the subtitles when speech occurs. It’s simple. It’s even better if you have
some hearing, even if it’s limited, because then you can often hear enough of the
sound to make some sense of it, and the subtitle can then be used just to clarify
what you are hearing.
This is fine as long as the programme is not live. A pre-recorded programme normally
has the subtitles prepared; accurate, and fully synchronised with the programme action.
Speech and subtitle occur at the same time. In programme making this doesn’t always
happen, of course. Sometimes a programme is pre-recorded, but in a rush, put out
for broadcast before subtitles have been prepared. Sometimes a programme is genuinely
and unavoidably live, like News programmes, or sport (although there is an argument
for building a 5 second delay into ‘live’ news programmes so the subtitles can catch
up). Here is where the problems start. Somewhere behind the scenes is a subtitle
operator, presumably nowadays with computer software to back up manual subtitling.
This operator and the software are following what is being spoken in the programme,
creating the subtitle according to what they hear themselves, and the subtitle is
then superimposed on the programme - with a few seconds delay. And this delay destroys
the ability of the deaf viewer to follow the speech, because mouth movement – everybody,
deaf or not, lipreads to a certain extent – is not synchronised with the subtitle.
The subtitle is half a sentence too late, both for the speech and any associated
visual action, and this is completely disorientating.
This is bad enough, but often the subtitle is wrong. If the operator mishears, or
the computer chooses the wrong word, the subtitle is not only late, but it also gives
an incorrect word. Not to worry, though, the operator will usually wait for the short
lull at the end of the sentence and display the correct word, or at least another
attempt at the correct word. This is now several seconds after the word was actually
spoken, and this insertion then slows down the next subtitle, so it flashes slightly
more quickly to catch up with the programme, and is consequently difficult to take
in, so the viewer’s sense of programme and conversation flow is further disrupted.
And what happens if the operator or the computer has to hunt for the right word?
Well, the programme doesn’t stop, does it? The programme carries on, relentlessly,
with no subtitles for a few seconds, until the right word is found. Then all the
intervening missed subtitles come in a rush as the operator catches up.
A great and immeasurably useful skill people have is to be able to take information
in with different senses simultaneously. You can talk and taste at the same time.
You can smell the flowers and hear the birds without losing either. Most usefully,
sound and sight can be taken in at the same time, usually with little loss of information.
Crucially, deaf people do not have, or no longer have, this particular ability. For
deaf people, as far as television is concerned, all the information about the programme
has to be through sight. And this includes subtitles. If you are busy reading subtitles,
you cannot watch the programme at the same time, and vice versa. Where a hearing
person can normally watch action and hear speech without loss of either, a deaf person
cannot do this, and so it is very easy to miss bits of either the action or the subtitle.
And, of course, they are usually the crucial bits, like the scoring of a goal, or
the comedian’s punchline. There is a constant choice having to be made of what to
watch, and it needs constant concentration.
Finally, the operator appears to have control over where the subtitle appears on
the screen. The viewer certainly can’t control this, not with current technology,
anyway. With most programmes, the subtitles are near the bottom of the screen, and
that is fine, because the action you most need to see, like eyes and heads, is usually
near the top. But in sport, the action can be all over the screen, and is often completely
obscured by the subtitle. I find for most sports that having subtitles at the top
of the screen works best, but there are many times when the operator appears not
to be watching the programme at all, putting the subtitle right where it obscures
what you are trying to watch. You end up powerlessly pleading with the television
to get the operator to actually look at the programme, to apply some common sense
or understanding, and put the subtitle somewhere useful.