In the summer of 1973, the course of my life changed when I suddenly lost most of my hearing due to an illness.

Before I started school the following fall, my parents and school staff planned how I would be mainstreamed into the classroom. Two powerful hearing aids and developing speechreading skills helped me access most instruction, with one notable exception: I was unable to understand the spoken content of films and other media teachers used to supplement and reinforce student learning.

At the time I lost my hearing, two relatively parallel developments were taking place that would dramatically improve educational opportunities for students with hearing loss. One was the introduction of a new technology for television called closed captioning, which made it possible for spoken content to be displayed in text across the bottom of the screen. While adding captions to programming was initially voluntary, laws governing the accessibility of electronic media have greatly broadened its availability today.

The second development was the evolution of educational services for students with disabilities. Over the last half century, federal mandates, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), have moved students with disabilities out of exclusionary settings and into the mainstream, establishing their right to be educated in the least restrictive environment and prohibiting discrimination. IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] and 504 plans detail accommodations schools are required to provide.

For many students with hearing loss, closed captioning is an adaptation needed to access educational media.

Unfortunately, despite the legal protections and advancing technology, many teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing in Minnesota report noncompliance regarding the use of captioning by classroom teachers. As informally surveyed last year, less than 14 percent of the 80 respondents indicated that their district is fully compliant or close to fully compliant in providing closed captioning for instructional videos. 62 percent reported partial compliance and almost 24 percent described their district as minimally or not compliant.

There are many excuses for noncompliance, but ultimately none are valid. Failure to provide access is a civil rights violation under ADA and other federal laws, although most schools do not readily recognize it as such. Some teachers simply don’t take the initiative to secure captioned media. Others may prioritize their curriculum over a single student, perceiving an enriching but uncaptioned video as being too important not to show to the rest of the class and feeling that excusing the student from the learning opportunity is an acceptable alternative. It is not.

The most egregious problem is that the burden of reporting noncompliance falls on the student. When teachers have autonomy over their curriculum and the digital media they use, who is going to know if a teacher isn’t using captions unless the student is reporting it? Because of the power imbalance between the teacher and students, many students are unwilling to advocate for themselves. Even parents may be hesitant to speak up.

In this day and age there are multiple options for acquiring captioned media or getting existing media captioned. There are services that will add captions where there were none and programs that can be used to add captions manually. Initially, this takes time, planning and, usually, some expense. In many cases this burden is mostly upfront and not continuing, unless a teacher is dramatically changing the curriculum from year to year.

The investment schools make to provide accessible electronic media ultimately benefits all students and not just those with hearing loss. Numerous studies show that consistent use of closed captioning and subtitles helps increase literacy skills, retention of concepts, and vocabulary (captionsforliteracy.org). Teachers using captioning regardless of whether or not they have a student with a hearing loss in class will increase their students’ exposure to text and enhance their learning.

What is legally required for some is good for all. What better reason do schools need to universally implement closed captioning?

 

Tracy Blodgett, of Woodbury, is a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students, White Bear Lake Area Schools.