Demystifying Captions in Less than 10 Minutes

June 15, 2021

By Stephanie Nielsen, ITS Product Manager and Jim Phillips, Director of ITS Campus Engagement

Prior to the pandemic, the word “captioning” may have called to mind a catchy phrase placed on an Instagram post. And although it has been required by law for many years, our increased reliance on video content and live streaming during the period of social distancing has rendered captioning for the deaf or hard of hearing absolutely essential. 

Captions Help Everyone

If you are a hearing person who hasn’t ever considered just how essential captioning is, please watch this four-minute video, HEAR ME OUT TOO, in which Ren (a student who is deaf) describes what captioning means for her.

Captioning is just as important for faculty and staff: Imagine trying to complete an online security training or COVID training without captions if you needed them to understand the information being presented? Sadly, it does happen with surprising regularity and occurs mainly because the people who designed the training never stopped to think about it.

While captions are of vital importance for people with disabilities, a significant number of students, faculty, and staff benefit from captions even if they aren't deaf or hard of hearing. Whether you are in a sound-sensitive environment or learning a second language, captions can help you overcome many auditory processing issues, even temporary ones. For instance, who hasn’t appreciated captions when listening to a recording with poor audio quality? 

Let’s define some basic terms:

  • Audio descriptionscapture the visual elements of a video to assist those with low vision or who are blind. Visuals and images presented in the video need to be described in an audio track so that people with vision impairments know what's happening. 
  • Captions and subtitles are for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Captions use text to describe all the audio elements of video, including non-speech sounds and noises.
  • Transcripts are simply a text document of the spoken words in the video. 

So which videos need to be captioned? Be sure to caption when you have content that is:

  • Made available to the public
  • Used for instruction 
  • Provided to staff as training 
  • Intended for system-wide or campus-wide audiences

That covers a lot! If you are considering making a video or sharing a recorded Zoom meeting in the near future, think about captioning early in the production process. 

The best-quality captions come from third-party providers, like or 3-Play Media, that employ professional staff who can add captions to a video that has already been recorded. Alternatively, some platforms can now generate captions using “automated speech recognition” (ASR), like YouTube or Yuja, the campus media platform. While it continues to improve, ASR (alone) does not yet meet UC accessibility standards because automated captions are not accurate enough. Even the best automated captions are only about 90% accurate, which means that 10% of the captions are inaccurate.  

Strive for Clarity

For the video experience to truly be accessible, captions need to be accurate. This means they need to be synchronized with the audio, have proper punctuation, identify the speaker, and include other background sounds such as [joyful music]. Recalling Ren’s comments in her YouTube video, this even includes [fart sounds]. And while you’re at it, don’t edit out the swear words either or replace them with a string of special characters. Remember that captioning includes all the audio elements that contribute to the context of the video.

Visually Speaking … through Audio Descriptions

The Federal Government has defined audio descriptions as:

A means to inform individuals who are blind or who have low vision about visual content essential for comprehension. Audio description of video provides information about actions, characters, scene changes, on-screen text, and other visual content.

Sometimes referred to as “video description” or “descriptive narration,” the spoken content that constitutes an audio description can usually be found during existing pauses in dialogue. You can even include an audio description in the audio track as part of the video you are producing. 

To get a feel for audio descriptions, check out this short audio description that Stephanie created using a free tool called YouDescribe: The UCSC Minute: Part 18 (Alumni Week Special Edition).

When you give a presentation or teach a class in a Zoom meeting or in person, it is important to audibilize anything you are presenting visually. For example, if you are showing an image, graph or table, describe what it shows. It is a best practice to announce your name and pronouns, and the name and pronouns of each speaker who presents. By audibilizing what you present visually, you effectively force the (audio description) information to be included in the captioning. And, it helps everyone in your audience understand what you’re talking about. 

How to Caption Live Events with Real-Time Captioning

But what if you need to provide captions for a live event? In that case, you will need to partner with a third party that is trained in using “CART” technologies (Communication Access Real-time Translation). Also known as “real-time captioning,” CART is often used by court reporters and you may have noticed it being used for televised sporting events in restaurants and bars. 

If you have a live event coming up that needs real-time captioning, a third-party provider like VITAC,, or even a really fast typist can be used. Your department can get an account and PO started with any of the services mentioned here. 

People should let you know in advance that they need an accommodation. At UCSC, our recommendation is to ask about the need for a disability-related accommodation at the point when people register for an event. If it’s for a lecture, the DRC can help guide faculty on how best to provide student accommodations. If you are organizing a live event that includes students, faculty, and staff (or the general public), then make sure to include something like the following statement so that event planners have ample time to arrange for an accommodation:

If you would like to request a disability-related accommodation (such as a sign language interpreter or advance access to the program materials in an alternative format), please contact [insert name + contact info] as soon as possible [or give an exact date].

Having advance notice is absolutely essential for certain types of accommodations. And it is ok to give a specific deadline. It can take a few days to book a sign language interpreter so give yourself plenty of lead time. Most importantly, when hosting an event, identify someone in your department who can be listed as the contact person to field any accommodation requests that may be received. 

Pro Tips

  • Don’t Rely Solely on ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition) - While accuracy is improving, it is not good enough to meet accessibility requirements. If you absolutely have to use ASR for something like a Zoom recording or YouTube video, plan on taking some time to revise the captions afterwards. Both platforms provide capabilities to edit the auto captions in post production. 
  • Be Aware of both Player and Platform - Some social media platforms rely solely on ASR and do not provide a way to manually add or correct captions. In these cases, you may need to use “open captions,” which are “burned” into the video. That decision, in turn, may require the services of a third party. Make sure you know how captioning works on your social media platform of choice.  
  • Write a Transcript for your Video before Recording - You can plan how to describe the visual components, and this will help with editing captions later. If you use a third-party captioner, supplying them with a transcript can help them with spellings of names and other technical terms. 
  • After you have recorded the video and uploaded it to a platform, test the accessibility of the video.
  • Are synchronized captions provided that give a text equivalent for all spoken and essential, non-spoken audio? 
  • Are the visual elements that are important to understanding the content described in the audio track? 
  • If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” then create a transcript that includes both the audio and visual descriptions. 
  • For audio-only recordings, like podcasts - Make sure the transcript of the audio is available on the same web page as the audio-only recording, preferably right next to it. 

We hope this article has helped you understand captions better. A little proactive planning can make a world of difference, as Stephanie sums up admirably:

Using captions means you are removing barriers so that everyone can experience the video the way you intended. The first step is to become aware of the need for captioning. Then, create a habit with some simple changes you can do today. And finally, know where to find resources so you can learn more and build a practice. 

UCSC is committed to ensuring that our research, instruction, and interactions with the community are accessible to everyone. While that is a tall order, remember that creating inclusive environments for our students, faculty, and staff is a journey, not a destination. And they are worth your extra effort.

Want to learn more? 

Here are some fun things you can do to make your videos more accessible: 

  • Try captioning a Zoom recording.
  • Next time you are giving a presentation, take a moment to describe orally what is being presented visually.
  • Next time you watch a movie, turn on the audio descriptions to get a feel for it.
  • Create audio descriptions for your favorite YouTube videos by using YouDescribe.
  • Take the free Accessibility Fundamentals for the Web Siteimprove course to learn more about universal design for the web. (Requires a UCSC login to Siteimprove.)

 This is the final article in a series of three focused on digital accessibility, written in honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) takes place every year on the third Thursday of May. This year, in celebration of GAAD, the UC Electronic Accessibility Committee (EAC) hosted a system-wide webinar: Accessibility is for Everyone open to all UC students, faculty and staff. 

Stephanie Nielsen, an EAC committee member and accessibility advocate in ITS, gave a presentation called Demystifying Captions in Less than 10 Minutes. The recording of the entire webinar, Accessibility Is for Everyone: Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2021, is available on YouTube.