Synchronized closed captioning requirements face push-back due to feasibility with workload

April 4, 2023

California Lutheran University has pushed for accessibility to continue in its compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires professors to have synchronized closed captioning, accurate audio descriptions and an accessible video player for the videos they include in their courses.

Maria Kohnke, associate vice president of Academic Services and registrar, said in a Zoom interview that the rule in Section 508 requiring captioning has been in place since 2018, which was when Cal Lutheran provided support to faculty, between Information Technology Services and Digital Learning, to be able to do transcribing.

“There was supposed to be support for faculty going forward, and I don’t know what happened with that,” Kohnke said. “I don’t think it was intentionally phased out. Sometimes when there’s no one person responsible, over time, other things can become more of a priority. And with turnover in staff, that can also affect the institutional memory of what has been put in place and what is supposed to happen.”

Mirwais Azizi, director of Digital Learning, said that Digital Learning’s small team of student transcribers is responsible for checking the automated closed captioning created by Camtasia, VidGrid and Adobe Premiere. He said that for each hour-long lecture, it takes Digital Learning three and a half hours to four hours to caption.

Azizi said that Digital Learning only works on online courses at the university and has been complying with Section 508 for online courses since the section has been enforced. 

“There’s an assumption that somehow Digital Learning is in charge of the whole university courses,” Azizi said. “We’re not. And we can’t be because we’re a small team. It will require a lot of a lot of staff members to do that. And I don’t think any university is doing that, to be honest with you, 30, 40, 50 staff members of their team, and that’s just not sustainable in terms of funding for any university.”

On behalf of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Tim Hengst, the Dean of the Graduate School of Psychology Rick Holigricki sent an email to chairs of the College of Arts and Sciences on Feb. 17. This email included answers from Wendy Jimenez, director of Disability Support Services, in consultation with former General Counsel of Cal Lutheran Thomas Knudsen, to questions sent by the College of Arts and Sciences about clarifying details about implementing standards set by Section 508 about video accessibility.

The email said any video, inside or outside of class, assigned by a faculty member must have captions, regardless of if there is or is not a student with a hearing impairment enrolled in the class. It also said that to maintain compliance with Section 508, any videos without captions should not be shown until there are captions embedded in the videos. If a student shows a video in class, the email said they are not required to embed captions in the video, since “there is no obligation on behalf of the University to ensure or provide captioning.”

Rainer Diriwächter, chair of the Psychology Department and professor, said that it is “completely unacceptable” that professors cannot use any of their in-class videos this semester unless they are captioned first, since faculty were never formally informed about the new push for captioning before the Feb. 17 email was sent out. 

The email said that a transcript “in lieu of the video captions” does not meet the standards set by Section 508, since it requires captions embedded in the video; however, if the transcript is synchronized with the video, “this is acceptable.” It also said auto-generated YouTube captions “do not meet the required legal standard of accuracy.”

Jimenez said in a Zoom interview that DSS has heard push-back to this policy from professors who are reluctant to make captions themselves, but the push-back is because they “feel overwhelmed with workloads or they are just not sure where to get started.” 

Diriwächter said that, while he and other professors are all for creating accessible content, there is an expectation that faculty will do closed captioning on their own time and without help. 

“To expect us to sit through hours and hours of video and transcribe these manually is completely insane. We’re not just teaching and that’s it, committee work, publications, we have our own research going on,” Diriwächter said. 

Diriwächter said he reached out to the dean about how to do this and received the reply to contact Digital Learning or the Help Desk, but when he contacted them, he found out that “nobody had ever heard of this here.” Diriwächter said that he eventually got “rotten emails,” basically telling him to figure it out by himself. He said they doubled down on that statement, and that is when he stopped looking into the closed captioning process.

“Somebody has to conceptualize a realistic plan,” Diriwächter said. “‘We’ll figure it out as we go along, and it needs to happen now, but we told you just now.’ That’s not professional. I get it, it’s going to cost a lot of money, but anything short of, we can submit the videos, and then they’ll do it for us, it’s just not realistic.”

Jimenez said that while there will likely be difficulties in implementing this process, it will be helpful for all students, not just the current 400 students with disabilities registered with DSS. Jimenez said these captions can be beneficial for students who work on assignments in loud environments.

“We want to make our university campus a community,” Jimenez said. “The way we do that is making sure we’re meeting the needs of all of our members, and making sure we’re providing a space where they can feel like they belong.”

Jimenez said that one of the benefits of these new accessibility standards is lowering the need that students feel to be the ones to ask for an accommodation because it’s already there and they will not feel like a burden by asking. 

“They can feel like they’ve been heard because some people want to keep it more private, some people are more open with it,” Jimenez said. “Being part of the disability community, it just makes it feel a little bit more welcoming. Like, ‘Hey, we care enough to put the time and effort and money into doing this.’”

This article was updated on April 10 at 10:30 a.m. to clarify that Digital Learning works only on online courses at the university. 

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