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Interview with Liam O’Dell – why we need to caption content

CN: captioning, awareness, accessibility to deaf people, autism, APD, Deafnitely Theatre, SignHealth, BSLHealthAccess, Rikki Poynter, The Staying Inn, Dr Amy Kavanagh, WhereIsTheInterpreter Campaign


Liam O’Dell is a deaf activist who has recently started a captioning campaign called #CCMeIn.

Image description: Liam, a white man with  light brown hair and black rectangular glasses, is smiling at the camera. He is wearing a white t-shirt and blue jacket with a grey fleece. The background is filled with circles of different colours of the rainbow.
Liam O'Dell - Alt text included.

Hi Liam, it’s great to meet you at last! So, you’ve started a campaign called #CCMeIn, could you tell me a bit about what that’s about? Why did you start this campaign?

Sure! So, #CCMeIn came about at the start of the year, back in January, launched on 1st January, so right at the start of the New Year. My reasoning behind that was because everyone will feel encouraged to do a New Year’s resolution at this time of year, of course. It was a New Year but also a new decade and it’s really about time people captioned their content on social media. So, on that day [of the launch], I put out video content [link]. I put a few posts on social media which was basically telling people about how to caption their content, which did really well. I think over 500 people have shared it on Instagram since, which is great. Then every month since then, with the exception of March and April, I’ve put something out in relation to that campaign. Of course, we didn’t see this whole thing with coronavirus happening. So, February was the opportunity to release a tutorial video [link], which went into detail how each app allows you to caption social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram – how they all have different captioning features. But the plan is to get back into it sometime this month because of course with all this digital content online at the moment, so much of it still is without captions, so I feel this is a good time to bring it back to remind people of that requirement.

What do you hope to achieve or will result from your campaign?

That’s a really good question. I haven’t got any statistical things that I want to look at just yet as awareness is ideally what I want, but that’s hard to measure in terms of statistics. I think in a weird sort of way I don’t know how else this can be proved other than other people in the community understanding what I mean by this [captioning content], but I think if people become more aware, deaf people will become more aware that they [hearing people] are aware, if that makes sense? You will start to see it more, it starts to become more second nature because at the moment, it’s still the case where deaf people have to remind service providers, content creators etc. that they have to caption their content. I think where I want this campaign to go - which is very ambitious - is the idea that more people caption their content.

I think a lot of people still cite two things when it comes to not captioning: 1. either that they have a lack of time or resources – which in the current situation there is a lot of time on everyone’s hands; or 2. they don’t know what resources are out there or tools these platforms have. I’ve addressed that second point with the tutorial. Now it’s just the case of really hammering home the first point; now you have so much time it’s really no excuse especially when so many people are watching digital content right now.

Obviously, deaf people benefit massively from this campaign – but hearing people will too. Can you tell me a bit about other reasons that people might need captions?

I’ve pretty much steered this campaign towards captions for deaf people, but people who are autistic have told me that it helps them when it comes to the [sensory] processing and there’s also people with auditory processing disorder (APD), which is a similar auditory condition [link] and they also benefit from captions. As well as these conditions, foreign language speakers where English is their second language means captions are beneficial.

In terms of hearing people, there are times where subtitles are incredibly beneficial (in fact it's beneficial all the time). A recent example was the film Parasite [link]; it was a South Korean film, so for a lot of people subtitles were necessary to understand what was going on. A fair amount of hearing people sometimes say that subtitles are distracting or obstructive because they get in the way, but what I’ve often repeated as my little mantra now is that accessibility benefits everyone. Subtitles have shown that they can help you with literacy, understanding the content of course – and there’s so many reasons why they are beneficial. I think as well going back to the argument that captions are a barrier, there is an excellent quote from the director of Parasite (Bong Joon Ho) who said: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” And he’s right, he is absolutely right. It’s funny because most people say that subtitles are in the way or distracting but yet they quite happily watch a film with subtitles if it’s Lord of the Rings and there’s a big monster speaking a foreign language that no one knows. And you know, if they’re complaining about subtitles, I’d happily turn them off, I’ll happily assume that some person named - I don’t know - Gregory apparently knows fluent Elvish! Captions are better for everyone, accessibility benefits everyone. So yeah, there’s so many hidden benefits I think.

How can people support the campaign – and how can people caption their content?

The kind of way in which my information has been grouped has been through the hashtag #CCMeIn which I’ve been using across social media. But I think also it’s about politely reminding people to caption their content. I’ve seen a few people spot videos, for example, I contacted an exhibition centre in London that had captioned the video but the captions were bright yellow on a bright background which really wasn’t accessible. What was nice after saying “hello, greatly captioned, could you please make them a bit more distinctive?”, they then went away and were able to send me an accessible version. So I think that’s certainly one way people can get involved with and I think that is everyone’s responsibility. For hearing people, I have produced the tutorial, and I think it’s important that is shared around. Also understanding the importance of captioning your content online. So I would say access my resources, access other resources out there, for example, Rikki Poynter [link] is a US activist who’s done some great work around captioning as well [link]. There are resources out there and I think it’s just about accessing them and reminding other people about the information that’s out there and their responsibility to make things accessible.

Now I don’t think we can avoid the subject – COVID-19. This has had a massive impact for everyone, but as deaf people we have had our own specific challenges. How do you think that during lockdown deaf people are going to be impacted by the lack of captions, for example regarding the increase of social media videos, watching films and TV programmes, and remote learning/work? What can be done to make it more accessible to deaf people during this time

I think there’s two parts to that, so what you’re seeing at the moment with coronavirus is that there is a rush of online content right now and it’s unfortunate because a lot of times this content is being rushed out for whatever reason to generate hype or just to get out there as soon as possible. It’s often the case that subtitles (or any kind of accessibility) is added afterwards and accessibility should never be an afterthought, it should never be a case of them going “oh we forgot about this” or ” we didn’t consider this during the process of making this content”, which is just not the right way of approaching it. Accessibility has to be considered from the get-go because otherwise, it implies that you haven’t thought about the whole breadth of your audience; just thought about the people who have the privilege of being able to hear. I think that’s one of the main barriers that comes up with coronavirus. I watch regular theatre shows every week and it’s a shame because there’s been a few where some theatres just haven’t made content accessible and it’s really upsetting because I’m sure these theatres before they closed when they were things you could go to in person was very big on accessibility. They talk about their captioned performances, how the venue is accessible to everyone; yet when they move their content online that same message isn’t quite applied.

Regarding how these issues can be tackled, I think it’s about knowing what tools are out there which allow you to caption and to explain the process, but I think there’s also a wider point to be made about accessibility. I think it’s important that commitment doesn’t go away, that it isn’t changed by the current situation. I’m sympathetic right now that a lot of businesses and people have a lack of resources or lack of staffing because of the furloughing that’s been going on (all the reduction and stuff) – but this is still the opportunity and time to caption content before it goes out. If it something like a company releasing a video, it has to be standard now that if that video isn’t captioned it’s not ready to be released yet. I’ve seen it a lot of times now where it has to be that there is a demand for access or “proof of demand” for things like the video to be captioned in order for a company to do it. Accessibility isn’t a demand, it’s an expectation; it isn’t something you can opt into or do if you fancy it, it’s something that you have to do. There is a legal requirement – The Equality Act – for a lot of businesses and situations whereby you have to make your content accessible, so basically there’s no excuses!

For many people, outside of lockdown, going with their deaf groups to local cinemas to watch subtitled films or theatre was their way of avoiding being isolated, I know this was a monthly thing my local deaf charity put on – do you think this means that there will be (if not already) an increase in loneliness and isolation from deaf people during this time?

It's an interesting one and it’s something I’ve looked into myself in terms of my reporting, as well as campaigning, and have heard from a large number of deaf people about the kind of issues around isolation. Local deaf groups are finding this current situation quite isolating, mainly around the lack of accessible information - so that will be content that isn’t captioned or interpreted. In terms of access to local cinemas and theatres that people could do before this happened, I think what’s been really good in this time is that a lot of deaf content creators have come to the fore (and they’ve always been there) and that their content is being celebrated a lot more because it’s accessible. For instance, Deafinitely Theatre [link] is one example who I believe are releasing a back catalogue of productions online and of course, those come with captions and are accessible to deaf people!

I think it’s times like this where you can be reminded of the Deaf community’s collective struggle. I know when I first started exploring the Deaf community when I first felt isolated after being told I needed hearing aids and started my “deafness journey”, finding that community helped tackle the isolation. So right now, comfort can be found in other deaf people having similar experiences, sharing feelings and emotions in relation to isolation. Realising that there are other deaf people out there feeling the same way can provide a bit of comfort and that’s what is needed right now.

So if this is happening, where can deaf people go to for support? Usually for issues around wellbeing and mental health people would go to their doctor, but now lots of people are being told that their GP centre has closed or that only phone calls are being offered which is another barrier.

The deaf mental health charity SignHealth [link] has been fantastic in leading in this area; they’ve realised that a lot of organisations understand right now the feelings of people being in lockdown, in the same environment for a long period of time, can have an impact on our mental health. They have funded BSLHealthAccess [link], which enables BSL signers to access GP surgeries and health professionals because a lot of these are now phone services; so that service is there to help them. Then in terms of wider mental health, their services are still available online in a variety of different ways: online as well as a text service. There’s more information on SignHealth’s website, they really are an excellent resource for deaf people who may be struggling during this time.

Often events (online and in real life), if we are lucky, either have a BSL interpreter or live captions subtitles, but the Deaf community isn’t a one size fits all, so what would your advice be for organisers who maybe aren’t deaf aware and/or have a limited budget?

I think that’s an interesting point because in video meetings, for example, some of the best I’ve been in and the best example of access is when there is both subtitles and interpretation available. I was in, and I think you were too, The Staying Inn [link] – which has been set up by another fellow campaigner Dr Amy Kavanagh [link]. When I did a deaf awareness session with them recently, there were subtitles and an interpreter available, and as you say it’s not a one size fits all. I feel like representation on TV, film, and media is fantastic of course, but there is that consideration that needs to be made that there is an unintended side-effect presenting disability through this one frame, because deaf people have different access needs. For example, autism affects every individual differently, and with every condition and disability, it affects people in different ways.

So when it comes to communication requirements, they’re different as well so it’s important that you don’t frame access through this one method. I’ve seen it a few times recently that some people say in response to the campaign about the need for an interpreter at the briefings [link], “well why not just make do with captions?”. You have to be aware that different people have different communication needs. If you’re going to frame access through this one provision – so in this case, captions – and tell every deaf person “this is the only provision available, you’re only allowed to have captions”, then that’s just an incredibly disabling attitude to have. The social model of disability [link] argues that it is society and its attitudes that disable people and it’s that attitude that can definitely play a part. So I think when it comes to access, it’s important to frame an environment around the needs of an individual rather than framing the individual’s needs to fit the environment. It’s much easier, for example, to change rooms in a building or change technical setups of a presentation, rather than telling a deaf person “oh we only have this provision available, you’ll just have to make do”. It’s so much easier to change the environment rather than to tell a disabled person to make do with a provision that isn’t accessible to them.

If there was one message or advice for someone who is maybe new to captioning to take away from this, what would that be?

It comes down to not being afraid to start and not being afraid to ask for support. I think there might be a concern for some people to start captioning that it has to be in a certain way – they get so worried about some of the details or looks around access that they decide not to do it at all because they fear they might not have it captioned in the best way. Just make a start, but also if you do have that feeling around not knowing how to caption, reach out to deaf people. For a lot of things, if hearing people approach deaf people and show that they are making an effort to be more accessible - whether that’s breaking down communication barriers by learning a bit of sign language or making online content accessible with captions – if you just say “look, what’s the best way of captioning my content? Do you have any tips here?”. You can happily approach me, I’m happy to say: “this is how you can caption the video; this is how you can format it”. For a lot of people, because we [deaf people] are the most experienced in what we need, we will probably be the best people to advise on how to make your content accessible.

So, two things really:

1. Don’t be afraid to start captioning; but also

2. If you need that support, it’s out there.

Thank you so much for talking with me!

Liam started the campaign #CCMeIn and is a deaf activist. He is also a freelance journalist where he often reviews London theatre productions, as well as specialising in deafness, disability and social media. On top of his own work, he is a regular contributor to the deaf news blog The Limping Chicken and the online YouTube magazine TenEightyUK. Alongside writing, Liam produces content for his own YouTube channel and is a public speaker.

You can contact Liam at or follow him on twitter @LiamODellUK.

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