Interview with Shell Little: Captions and Neurodiversity

Headshot of young white woman in makeup and lilac-colored shoulder-length hair with bangs wearing a mauve top, necklace and dark jacket. She is looking into the camera.

At the #a11yTO 2018 conference, I heard Shell Little speak on accessibility, and she shared quite openly about what it’s like to be neurodivergent. I was really affected by her talk because, although I advocate for captions for people including those with cognitive differences, I hadn’t really heard from someone so candidly about their experiences. Many emails and DMs later, Shell and I have assembled an interview that explores what are sometimes called creative or alternative captions and how a neurodivergent (ND) person is helped or hindered by them.

RW: Right, so I’m on the fence about these because the creative people making them often don’t get accessibility. But then some accessibility folks are using creative means to be make captions more usable! Some people are experimenting with colours (old hat in the UK and Europe) but also icons, avatars, and other non-traditional captioning ideas. I remember you saying movement across a screen could present a barrier to retention, so what about something like this?

Please see the trailer for John Wick 2 at the 1:24min mark; these captions are for style more than accessibility, but I wondered how they might be received by an ND person.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4425200/videoplayer/vi1127331353?ref_=tt_ov_vi

And here’s a combo platter of style and caption provision. In Man on Fire, this scene has the page erasing the caption. Annoying? Frustrating? Not an issue?

Medium shot of three people walking and talking in shadow against a domestic courtyard background. A full caption line says, Approximately a month.

Shot of a white hand turning the page of a document in a binder; as the page is turning, the caption from above is being erased by the turning page, so that only the following is shown in this still: Approximatel

SL: Wow, I have a lot of mixed feelings about these creative captions! On one hand, they seem really cool because they are integrating the text into the story, making the text feel like it’s not just slapped on top of the screen, but right in there with it. I also think it’s cool to give someone who is HoH/D/deaf an interesting experience with their CCs. Making the style reflect the tone could add another layer to entertainment.

Now, I could see the motion being a bit much for someone who has sensory-related disabilities. And, if not done in a tasteful way, it could become a big distraction. I think the idea of less is more could apply for something like creative captions.

On the other hand, I play a lot of video games, and that kind of creative style text is really, really common. Not exactly like the page-turning example you provided, but more like the ASL-translation type of “flowing” text in that John Wick example. In games that have no actual spoken words, they use style to push the tone of the text. An example of a game would be Ori and the Blind Forest. Here is a link for an example of how the text flows across the screen and is part of the scene itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufD833Vgfnk

The number one thing when it comes to cognitive accessibility is context. If the text is the main point of the scene, then it can have a lot more liberty to be moving in general. Much like how moving content works for Pause, Stop, or Hide buttons. If the movement is deemed essential, such as a spinner for loading, that kind of movement is okay and is helpful. But if the text is being used in a very distracting way, I could see it being a barrier, for sure. For video games, text is often done on a frozen screen or a cut scene where the text is essential, and there isn’t always a ton going on (depending on the game). That can’t be said for movies and TV shows. I think to have a full understanding of how I feel, I’d need to watch a full movie with the creative captions. Part of me feels like I would get used to it and enjoy the integration as I rely heavily on captions when watching movies. But as I mentioned in my talk, there are so many types of cognitive disabilities. I’d be curious to hear what someone with Autism would think as well!

RW: The game you shared brought up some more questions for me.

First, it drives me crazy that all the lines start with capital letters, even if each caption is not a new sentence, and there’s no punctuation. But being dyslexic, is it actually less cumbersome for you to process by being cleaner-looking in that way? I’m a prescriptivist mostly and am wondering if I need to shift my understanding to include how cognitive disabilities might actually make this style better received.

SL: I’ve seen a lot of different ways to do captioning throughout the years, especially when we’re talking about the video-game space. The style of captions Ori uses delivers content that is short in length but with no proper grammar in terms of sentence structure. To me, that looks sharp, clean, and is easy to consume. I honestly had to go back to the clip and look to see if there really was lack of punctuation because it mattered so little to me at the time I was playing the game! Thanks to texting and IM’ing, I’m very comfortable consuming small portions of content that lack proper punctuation, capitalization, and sentence structure, so much so I didn’t even notice it in these captions.

RW: Ah, my query may be a function of my job—and generation! I use short forms in texts, but punctuation has to go in 😛

SL: Why I think this style of captions works is—again—all about the context. The statements are short and to the point. They’re delivered in parallel to a lot of moving content in some segments, and they’re short enough that I can get through the information while fighting the moving content going on around it. In a race for my attention, motion will always beat out written text. Now, if there was a nonsense paragraph of captions with no punctuation and run-on sentences, that would be infuriating. This style of captioning works because the information is delivered in bite-size packages. I would take these small five- to ten-word captions over having to read extensive text any day.

RW: So, it’s context and quantity, it sounds like.

You also said you’re dyscalculic. In captions, would you prefer to see numerals or numbers as words, considering the speed of captions? Would it make a difference if they were smaller numbers (captioned 10 or ten) or larger (captioned 2000 or two thousand)?

SL: First, I would say my issue with numbers in captions would be more due to my dyslexia than my dyscalculia. Unless they were asking me to hold meaning to the numbers or do math! Example: doing conversions of currency or going from Celsius to Fahrenheit—never going to happen, ha-ha!

But, ah, yes…numbers in captions! This is a perfect example why captions are so important for ND people like me. It’s about receiving information in more than one format. Hearing something said and being able to read it simultaneously is a way to solidify the meaning of that spoken content. So, if a character yells “Fifty thousand dollars? He wants that much?!” and the captions read [$50,000? He wants that much?!], I have enough context and am not required to figure out how many zeros are on that number. No need to hold my fingers up to make sure my brain isn’t moving the comma and that it really is fifty thousand and not five.

Where I run into issues is subtitles. With subtitles I’m only able to get the information in one format. I watch a lot of K-drama [Korean drama tv shows], and the money there causes me constant frustration. This is due to the number of zeros used in their money. For example, $5 is roughly 5,000 won. So, you can imagine how many zeros end up being used when we are talking about large figures. My rule would be: if the information is being delivered in more than one format, using numerals is fine. The issue with that is we can’t assume everyone who is ND is also hearing. I’m sure there are plenty of ND people who are also HoH/D/deaf. So, to be truly inclusive, I would lean towards the option of writing out larger quantities.

RW: So many variables! I recently contributed to a LinkedIn post that invited discussion about the “accessible seating” in a cinema:

Shot taken from cinema seating of a section before it that is ostensibly reserved for "accessible seating": there is an area of four seats' width barred off at the sides from the other seats in the middle of the row. This section is in the second row of the cinema, with a transverse aisle behind it.

Picture by Thea Kurdi, LinkedIn February 6, 2019. Used with permission.

I posted: If you were additionally using a CaptiView, there’s nowhere to attach it, it’s visible to the entire audience, and it’s too close to the screen to allow for the quick eye refocusing that’s needed. Also, it assumes only two people in wheelchairs [or other assistive technology] want to go to a movie. What if a bunch wanted to go as a group? But mostly, relegating people with disabilities to the crappiest section of the theatre is a statement of its own.

To be fair, perhaps this and all cinemas can’t be made perfectly accessible. No product or service can. But attempts to at least recognize, address, and improve barriers to accessibility are important.

So maybe there’s no way of making all creative captioning accessible to all users. What works for an ND user might not work for a low-vision user, for example. But it’s kind of nice to dream of a future time when you could open your streaming app and have not only (excellent) captions as an option—as in real captions, not subtitles being appended in lieu of captioning—but also multiple options.

The makers of a film from 2016 called Notes on Blindness created an accessibility campaign to accompany their film: they made alternative audio-description soundtracks with different levels of access for users to choose from! That’s the kind of inclusive thinking and action we need!

Maybe one day, captions and subtitles will get their own Oscar category, and the right to and the usability of accessibility measures will be as much a no-brainer as buses that kneel or curb cuts. Fingers crossed, and much work ahead of us.

Thanks so much, Shell, for helping me understand a bit better the complexity around ND and how it applies to captioning. I’m adding some content on it to my course. And if you see other captioning that causes you to pause, please share!

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