A video showing closed captioning

Understanding Assistive Technology: How Does a Deaf or Hard of Hearing Person Use Technology?

Written by: E Foley

Thank you to our friends at 3PlayMedia for their collaboration on this article.

Understanding digital accessibility challenges is easy if you know people with disabilities. But what if you’ve never seen a person who is blind use their computer or smartphone? We’re here to help you understand a little bit about what it’s like to use the internet if you have a disability. Check out our previous two articles in this series:

Today, we are focusing on people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing.

What do we mean by “d/Deaf” or “hard of hearing”?

According to the National Association of the Deaf (NAD),“How people “label” or identify themselves is personal and may reflect identification with the deaf and hard of hearing community, the degree to which they can hear, or the relative age of onset.” You can read the full descriptions on their website, but here’s what you need to know:

  • Deaf: Those who identify as Deaf (with a capital D) communicate with sign language. These are often those who have been deaf for most of their lives.
  • deaf: The lowercase d is for those who do not identify as part of the Deaf culture. These can include those who became deaf later in life.
  • Hard of hearing (HoH): This describes those who have some hearing loss, but not complete hearing loss.

Beyond captions: Assistive technology for Deaf/HoH users

Did you think we were just going to talk about captions?

Alerting devices

An alerting device converts an audio alert (e.g., doorbell, fire alarm, alarm clock) into a visual or physical alert that the person can perceive.

Telecommunications

Many different options are available for those who are d/Deaf or HoH, including amplified telephones, TTY / TDD (software and hardware), real-time text (RTT), captioned telephones, Text-to-911, video chat, and text and video relay services.

Enhanced/Assistive listening

Systems can be used to overcome background noise and provide a more direct audio feed for someone who uses assistive listening devices.

For example:

  • In a classroom, a teacher could wear a small microphone that uses an FM radio system to transmit audio to a student’s hearing aid.
  • In a theater, an infrared or audio induction loop system can be used so that audience members with hearing impairments can hear the play through their hearing aids or cochlear implants.
  • At work, an employee can couple their cochlear implant or hearing aids with their computer via Bluetooth and hear their computer’s audio without needing headphones.

Accessibility barriers for d/Deaf/HoH users

Here are some accessibility issues that restrict access to people who are d/Deaf/HoH:

Inaccurate captions

Without captions, it can be difficult or impossible to follow what is happening on screen. While some people can read lips, unless the speaker is facing straight at the camera the entire time, it’s not feasible for a video. (Also, it’s way more work!)

When captions are missing content, have incorrect words, or are missing important details (such as clarifying which person is speaking or noting important sounds) they do not provide an equivalent experience for someone who is d/Deaf/HoH.

Automated captions are a blessing and a curse for those with hearing impairments. It can be great to have captions, but AI is far from perfect and sometimes automated captions are worse than no captions at all.

In a freeze frame from a video, a little girl covers her mouth with both hands and looks surprised. The automated caption reads, “what’s your special prom to prevent fraud reform.” 

Captions that are not synchronized properly

If you have ever experienced lag while streaming video and had the actor’s mouth not match up to their words, you know how annoying it is when the visual and audio tracks are not in sync. As the equivalent to audio, captions should also be in sync with the video.

No transcripts

Podcasts have exploded in popularity in recent years, but not many of them provide transcripts for those who need them. The same goes for webinars: do you offer a transcript along with your slides and recording? A true transcript includes details about the speaker and other important auditory content. (Marketers – there’s an added bonus to having transcripts done for your webinars.)

Phone-only customer support

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to contact a business and finding out the only option to do so is a phone number. While the telecommunications relay service (TRS) is available through each state, many people prefer to communicate in different ways that better suit their needs.

Low-quality audio

Low-quality audio will result in inaccurate captions or additional work on your end to fill in the blanks where the transcriptionist couldn’t make out the words. If you don’t have captions at all, the audio will be even more difficult for someone who is hard of hearing to understand if the background noise is competing with the speaker.

The Good Life: What an Accessible Site Looks Like

We went to our friends at 3Play Media to ask what a best-in-class experience would be for someone who is d/Deaf/HoH. Here’s what Elisa Edelberg of 3Play told us:

  • Accurate Captions
    • Captions allow viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing to follow the dialogue and the action of a program simultaneously.
    • It’s critical that captions are accurate and also include non-speech elements, otherwise the content may be incorrect, incomprehensible, or incomplete
  • Transcripts
    • Providing a transcript is another great way for deaf or hard of hearing users to follow along and have another means of consuming the content. (However, transcripts should not be used as a replacement for captions!)
  • Multiple methods of contact and communication
    • Deaf and hard of hearing visitors may have a difficult time communicating over the phone. Providing an email address, or alternative means of contact will help.
  • High-quality, clear audio with minimal background noise
    • Quality audio will make it easier to ensure accurate captions. Poor audio quality makes it harder for transcribers to capture all the words spoken, leading to transcripts with many [inaudible] or flagged spots.
    • Clear and high-quality audio will also be easier for hard of hearing users to understand more clearly
  • Use of clear and simple language
    • American Sign Language (ASL) is a different language than English, and it has its own grammar structure. Individuals who use ASL as their primary language may not be fluent in English, so making written content clear and simple to understand is important, and can be done in the following ways:
      • Avoid slang and confusing jargon
      • Use headings and subheadings to properly structure your content
      • Include bulleted lists
      • Employ an active, rather than passive, voice
      • Provide definitions in simple terms
      • Use consistent language throughout content

The Bottom Line: Design to Include d/Deaf/HoH People

You can design your websites, software, and hardware with people with disabilities in mind and you can retrofit existing technology to be accessible. It’s a win-win situation for your organization (more clients, more revenue, more contracts) and people with disabilities (less confusion, less frustration, less isolation).  Some fixes, like proofreading automated captions on YouTube videos, are quick to do and make a big impact on the user experience.