Those of us who regularly fly in economy class know all too well the indignities associated with long-haul air travel. But even so, we’re simply a movie selection or audio soundtrack selection away from being transported to a different reality. That is the case, at least, for passengers who can hear. More often than not, the deaf and hard of hearing do not have a closed captioning (CC) option on their IFE.
In February 2006 the US DOT issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to require airlines flying in and out of the US to provide CC on all video content. At that time, APEX (then WAEA) discovered that the DOT wrongly believed video monitors on aircraft functioned like televisions on the ground, where CC could be simply turned on and off with – as the NPRM suggested – “the pressing of buttons that already exist on the television and audio-visual equipment”, notes Michael Childers, a long-time industry consultant who engaged the DOT during this period, and who now chairs the APEX Technology Committee.
WAEA advised the DOT that open captions “must be ‘burned into’ the video frame and are neither system-controllable, nor (in the case of personal video screens) seat-controllable”. It proposed deferring requirements until “four years after the effective date of this rule”, since the industry was migrating to MPEG-4, which was expected to offer improved options for the implementation of CC. In 2009, the DOT reluctantly concluded that providing high-contrast captions for entertainment displays was not yet technically and economically feasible.
In March of this year US Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put accessibility standards back in the spotlight when he introduced two bills that would expand access to captioning and image narration in movie theatres and airplanes. APEX is uniquely positioned to propose a viable solution for all involved, as its Digital Content Management Working Group (DCMWG) already has an existing bitmap standard, ‘APEX 0403’, that is available to airlines from Panasonic, Thales, Lumexis and others. But airlines have not used the standard. The question, as to the standard, is whether it is the best and only. Timed Text may be more suitable for ASCII text on domestic airlines.
The Technology Committee has reached out to Senator Harkin and other government stakeholders to move the conversation forward. “I believe that we can provide a real service for the hard-of-hearing passenger but via technologies that are more affordable to airlines than those we were limited to 10 years ago,” says Childers.
Change can’t come soon enough. Advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing are calling for all aural announcements on the plane as well as at the airport to be captioned. The industry must listen to what they have to say. And regulators like Senator Harkin will doubtlessly ensure that it does.
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