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Utilizing Video Captions and Subtitles in the Classroom

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One hallmark of a good teacher is the desire for every student to succeed, but students with disabilities face barriers to their success that not every teacher spots right away. One of the barriers facing D/deaf and hard-of-hearing students is uncaptioned videos—or videos with captions or subtitles that simply aren’t being used.

Sometimes teachers, instructors, and professors leave the captions off intentionally, believing that they distract hearing students. But according to a survey from Audio Accessibility, a consulting service, hearing viewers who find captions problematic are in the minority. Also, viewing a video with subtitles normalizes the presence of students with hearing-related disabilities in the classroom, encouraging hearing students to consider everyone’s needs and developing compassion and understanding of those who are different from them.

But some educators simply aren’t sure how to use captions and subtitles in the classroom. Not all captions are created equal, and it’s important that D/deaf and hard-of-hearing students have quality captions that will provide them with access to the material. Of course, each student has different needs, and the accommodation provided should align with the student’s educational plan. However, some general rules of thumb will help teachers with not only the technological know-how to provide video captions but also the ability to discern accurate captions from unacceptable ones.

First, look at the website hosting the video. TED Talks, when found through the website (, have excellent word-for-word captions. On the other hand, while some YouTube videos’ posters provide transcripts or their own subtitles, most of these videos are auto-captioned. Since software, not a person, is responsible for these captions, they are often inaccurate to the point of being unusable by viewers who rely on them to access the video’s meaning. According to an article in Forbes, this may be because the software is picking up noise or having trouble discerning different accents or different sounds within words.

Regardless of the source of the video, make sure you examine the captions themselves. For a TED Talk, go to the bottom right-hand corner, where the subtitle controls are located (next to the volume). Click to open the drop-down menu, and then select English (or the appropriate language). YouTube has two options, also in the bottom right-hand corner: the CC button and the gear, which contains the drop-down menu in which the subtitles are found. If you’re playing a DVD, the start menu will list an option labeled Subtitles, Languages, or something similar. Click this button to pull up the available options, and then select the appropriate choice. It’s important to become familiar with turning on captions not only in order to examine them for accuracy but also simply to make sure you’ll know what to do when it’s time to play the video for your class.

Once you have your captions on, view the video at several points, keeping the sound on. Do the captions and the spoken words align? How often is the captioned word or phrase incorrect? Check the beginning of the video, the end, and several randomly selected midpoints to make sure the quality is consistent.

Now turn off the sound and watch the captions, choosing different random points this time. It may take a minute to adjust to reading instead of hearing the video, but once you’ve gotten used to it, pay attention to how intelligible the words are. Do they make sense? Turn on the sound, rewind the last minute, and check your interpretation of the captions’ meaning. Does everything still make sense? More importantly, would someone your students’ age be able to figure things out as the video is playing? For instance, a one-minute segment may have a few inaccurate prepositions (like “on” instead of “in”) that do not interfere with a student’s ability to understand the content. However, if vocabulary words are incorrectly captioned or are captioned in multiple ways (for instance, “Krebs cycle” may be rendered as “crab cycle,” “crap cycle,” and “crabs sickle” within the same video), or if multiple words per sentence are captioned wrongly, those captions won’t work for your students.

If the provided captions aren’t of a high enough quality for classroom use, try to find a transcript online. High-quality captions on the screen ensure the student doesn’t have to look back and forth between the video and a separate script, but sometimes the only option is to provide a script to the student beforehand. But again, some students (for instance, someone who develops headaches with sustained reading and needs to take breaks) may prefer a transcript instead of captions. In such cases, make sure your student gets a copy of the transcript ahead of time, if possible.

If there are no captions, subtitles, or transcripts available, you can have the material captioned before it’s shown in class. Your school, college, or university should have a point of contact, such as an office for students with disabilities, that you can work with to ensure the video is captioned on time. If you haven’t worked with this office or staff member before, ask at or before the beginning of the semester how much notice is needed in order to caption videos on time. From there, your point of contact will let you know how to proceed, and you’ll have quality captions ready for your student.

It takes only a little effort for instructors to locate, use, or request captions, but this effort makes a huge difference in leveling the playing field for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing students. When teachers make full use of technology on behalf of all their students, they allow students with disabilities to reach their full potential and be treated as equal members of the classroom environment.

Heather Startup is a copywriter with a background in teaching and educational accessibility. She can be contacted via her website at

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