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Caption Legislation needed to put Aotearoa in step with other OECD Nations

May 8, 2022

Hope Cotton
Hope Cotton
Lit sign reads "Hope"

We like to think of Aotearoa/New Zealand as a progressive country. In many ways, it is. But in the increasingly digital Covid age, one such issue of inequity has become startlingly clear. New Zealand's current closed captioning standards or lack of standards as the case may be, are in need of significant change.

Other countries have called out the need to improve the availability and quality of captions. In Australia, England, and America, closed captioning is required by law. In New Zealand, "there is no legislation requiring a minimum amount of captioning or audio description, putting New Zealand out of step with other OECD nations." As of 2015, approximately 31% of free to air TV was captioned. This cuts off a whole community of people from information, entertainment, and education. For Deaf, hard of hearing, and neurodivergent people like myself, captioning is crucial to our understanding of digital media.

What is closed captioning?

Closed captions are captions you can select to turn on. They are different from open captioning, which automatically appears on the screen, like in many foreign-language films. New Zealand's lack of captioning legislation means producers don't have to create captions and there is no enforced standard of quality. Auto-generated captions, often dubbed 'craptions' by the Deaf Community, can have as little as 50 per cent accuracy. This can be amusing, like in the case of the infamous Hillary Barry Salmon incident, but it can also be damaging, for example, if the captions on a crucial news update about Covid are incorrect. Auto-generated captions might say things like "Share Masks" instead of "Wear Masks".

“This misinformation goes beyond being annoying and chaotic and becomes an actual risk to our health and wellbeing.”

Hope Cotton

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for equal access to digital information through captions has never been greater. As someone raised orally in a hearing family, I am learning New Zealand Sign Language, but I am not proficient yet. Captioning is a crucial tool for information access. If Deaf or Hard of Hearing people wants to stay informed and watch the local news, captioning is offered, but only on some stations. We should all have equal access to information.

During many lockdowns and isolation periods, learning from home became part of our new normal. As education becomes an increasingly digital space, Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and neurodivergent kids continue to struggle to access information crucial to our education. Without legal captioning standards, the videos we watch in class aren't required to be captioned. If these videos are captioned, the inaccuracy of auto-generated captions can still ruin any chance of keeping up with the class. In America, the NAD filed a lawsuit against Harvard University because of the bad quality of their auto-generated captions. Harvard settled the suit and now captions their videos. A lawsuit shouldn't be necessary for this vital tool.

When I raised complaints about how our lack of captioning affects our education, the best response I could get was from Minister Chris Hipkin's assistant. In a letter, she said that the wider government was "considering the Inquiry into Captioning in New Zealand with regulation being part of a wider content regulation review." Neither the Minister for Broadcasting nor the Minister for Disability Issues responded to my queries.

Captioning is an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of kiwis, I am left wondering why I didn't receive a more robust response? This has real-life impacts. I recently had to read multiple versions of a script to write a film essay while the rest of my class watched that film once because the available captions weren't sufficient. We need more than a consideration from the government. If your hearing child had a video assessment and had to listen on mute there would be an outcry. Quality captioning is how Deaf people navigate an increasingly digital world. I can't speak for the community, but my peers also attest to the importance of captioning.

“Closed captions make us understand media better. If we don't have captions, Deaf or Hard of Hearing people don't understand a thing and other people have to guide us through what's happening.”

Aarushi Pandee

I can certainly relate to having to interrupt films to ask what's going on. It's caused some pretty chaotic family movie nights. It eventually got to the point where I'll often just sit and read a book rather than engage with an uncaptioned film. Another Deaf young person, Lucy Mackenzie, says, "As a Deaf person, captions help me understand what's being said on the TV more clearly, and then I'd have the opportunity to be able to watch things … I think it's essential for Deaf people to have the same experience as hearing people, so having access to captions is really important to me." Having the same opportunities and access to information as hearing people should be a reality, not a far off desire. For New Zealand to be a truly inclusive and equal country, it needs to be accessible. This can't happen without captioning legislation.

In 2008, the New Zealand government signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities. In doing so, the government promised New Zealanders and the world that they would priortise equal access to information for those with disabilities. Article nine of the convention states that they are required to "enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems." There is no legal requirement to caption media in New Zealand despite signing up to this article. While I cannot speak for the Blind Community, New Zealand's audio descriptions are also severely limited. The government needs to do more. Able is doing fantastic work creating audio descriptions and closed captions for New Zealand media, but they're reliant on funding, while funding has increased over the years, without legal regulations there is no universal mandate for captions - media producers can choose not to apply to be captioned and make inaccessible content without consequence. The Community has been campaigning for change for a long time. The National Foundation of the Deaf led a huge push for legislative change in 2019, but the fight continues. We need more people behind us. We need to get the attention of the lawmakers who have the power to enact this change.

I ask that you do what you can to spread awareness around this issue. Share this article. Caption any media you create, even if it's just an Instagram story or a TikTok. If this issue is important to you, write to your local Members of Parliament. Contact the Minister for Education, Chris Hipkins, the Minister for Disability Issues, Carmel Sepuloni, and the Minister for Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi.

A petition about this issue will be coming soon.

Since writing this piece Hope has heard from Minister Faafoi who in a letter outlined the work being done in Strong Public Media, updates to regulations that are being considered, and an increase of funding to NZ on Air for this purpose. You can read more about the things detailed on the Internal Affairs Website or at this link which shows Minister Faafoi's speech.

Deaf is capitalised when referring to someone who identifies as a member of the Deaf community or when they capitalize Deaf when describing themselves.