“Subtitles as Visual Art” by Sean Zdenek


Captioning is a rhetorically rich and complex process in which experiences are felt through text that is transformed by emotion. Significance is created through astute attention to context, and universal laws of communication draw together people who need and don’t need captioning as a function of their viewing experience.

In relation to multimodality, captions are essential in granting as much agency to a text as a composer is able. It’s also required as a legal precept in the United States, but those laws tend not to cover internet texts whose high circulation makes accessibility tactics like captioning essential. Furthermore, there’s an entire set of style rules that ensure captioning is standardized across media. All these regulations promote not only the communication of what is being said but to explain all significant context too. But, how do explain the sound of rain to someone who has never experienced a storm? This is where rhetoric takes hold, to shape that information according to the audience’s needs.

My reaction

What a wonderful article. Accessibility studies do not receive the attention they are due, and perfunctory work often slips through the cracks as a result of their ignorance. Especially captioning, which is so universally used in this golden age of entertainment. Allowing hearing-impaired individuals to participate in captioned programming opens their audience to the 1 in 6 Americans cited by the article who use closed captions. Not only is it smart for business, it’s good ethical practice to universalize information and media.

It’s also interesting that those higher on the deaf spectrum who rely on captioning may use the feature as much as those lower down. Think about how many times you’ve watched a video on your phone without the volume. Perhaps you’re at the office, in class, or don’t want to wake your significant other. Captions allow you to enjoy a text regardless of your hearing proficiency or context.

Why does this matter?

Since the majority of people suffer from minimal hearing loss, we don’t think about captioning as much as we ought. As we age, however, we will all undoubtedly find captions helpful. I’m thinking of my old dad, who turns the TV way too loud AND turns the captions on. Then of my mother, whom no matter how many times I’ve shown her, can’t ever remember how to turn the captions off. This helpful feature, even on something as pedestrian in most homes as a television, is not as accessible as need demands. And, this isn’t even mentioning movies, radio, and everything else people proficient in hearing take for granted. The real question is how can people think this doesn’t matter?



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