Captioning Tool Expansion Helps People with Hearing Loss

    04 July 2022

    The number of tools used to caption words has been expanding in recent years. The tools are especially helpful for people with hearing loss who may not be able to use traditional hearing aids.

    Captioning services used to be limited mostly to television shows. But in recent years, developers have created apps for phones and other electronic devices. These apps are making it possible for many people to use captioning technology wherever they go.

    In the United States, hearing loss issues affect an estimated 40 million adults. Many people use hearing aids to fight the problem. But high-quality hearing aids can cost up to $5,000. The devices are often not covered by insurance and do not work for everyone.

    Chelle Wyatt uses her cell phone with the Otter app Friday, April 15, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
    Chelle Wyatt uses her cell phone with the Otter app Friday, April 15, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

    Frank Lin is the director of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He told The Associated Press that many people are not dealing with their hearing problems because of a lack of effective options.

    "The solutions out there are clearly not a one-size-fits-all model and do not meet the needs of a lot of people based on cost, access, a lot of different things," Lin said.

    Industry experts say lower-cost quality hearing devices are currently being developed. But for now, only about 20 percent of people who could be helped by hearing aids use them.

    Captions are usually a lot easier to access than hearing devices. They have started appearing in many more forms of media. These include videoconferencing apps like Zoom, television show providers like Netflix and social media services YouTube and TikTok. Captions can also be found in some movie theaters and at live event centers.

    There are also several phone apps that provide captioning, such as Otter, Google's Live Transcribe, Ava and InnoCaption. Some of these apps are aimed at people with hearing loss and use humans to improve the quality of the captions.

    Otter and the Live Transcribe apps depend on a technology called automatic speech recognition (ASR). This system uses artificial intelligence to learn and capture speech.

    ASR can produce mistakes or experience delays when transcribing spoken words. But many users and experts say the technology has greatly improved over the years.

    While there are more offerings to help improve hearing, none of the solutions are perfect.

    Toni Iacolucci of New York says she sometimes had difficulties when using Otter to transcribe during book club meetings. The captions were often not correct and did not identify individual speakers. This could make it hard to keep up, she said.

    "It worked a little bit," said Iacolucci, who lost her hearing nearly 20 years ago. After coming home, she would be so tired from trying to follow the meeting's discussion that she had to lie down. "It just takes so much energy," she said.

    Otter said in a statement that it welcomes comments about its products from people who are completely deaf or have hearing issues. The company noted that it now provides a paid software assistant that can transcribe virtual meetings.

    A new law that took effect in New York City on May 15 requires movie theaters to offer captioning on the screen for up to four show times per movie each week. Captions are also becoming increasingly available for live performances, as well.

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English.

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    Words in This Story

    captionn. words written under a picture or screen to explain or describe what is being said and what is going on

    app n. a computer program that performs a special function, usually found on mobile phones

    option – n. a choice

    access n. a way of getting at, near or to something

    artificial intelligence n. the development of computer systems with the ability to perform work that normally requires human intelligence

    transcribe v. to make a written record of something that is heard, such as speech or music

    virtual adj. used to describe something that can be done or seen using computers or the internet instead of happening in a physical place