Captioning and Audio Description for DVD and Multimedia Environment

By Cheryl Heppner

Editor: This article is part of our coverage of the 2007 TDI convention and is brought to you by the folks at NVRC. You do not need permission to share this information, but please be sure to credit NVRC.

The presenters were John Mazza and Jay Wyant of CaptionMax. This is part one of four parts.

John Mazza works out of the LA office of CaptionMax. He has been involved in CaptionMax since its creation. He is Vice President of Finance and Human Resources. At one time, John was a teacher working with disadvantaged youth in his home state of Rhode Island. For 24 years he worked to develop a small technical staffing firm that grew to a revenue of over $1.3 billion. John “returned to his roots” after his eldest daughter became severely impaired at age nine due to a stroke, and now uses his business acumen in pursuit of accessibility and inclusion.

Jay Wyant works out of Minneapolis office of CaptionMax, where he is Marketing Director. He has an extensive background in telecommunications and technology accessibility. Deaf since birth, he has authored numerous books for the telecommunications industry on various network and communications technologies. He currently writes a column for AG Bell’s Volta Voices on technology issues. He serves as President Elect of AG Bell’s Board of Trustees.

About CaptionMax: John Mazza

Our theme is going beyond TV to captioning and video description for DVD and multi-entertainment environments. CaptionMax is a privately held company started by Max Duckler, a very successful video engineer, in 1993. Since 2003 we have been really involved in video description. Our only concern is media accessibility, which we do through closed captioning and audio description.

Our goal, and the goal of our emerging technology grant, is to level the educational playing field. We want to be able to provide equal access to blind and low vision, deaf and hard of hearing students and people in the classroom environment.

The Basics on Captioning: Jay Wyant

As you know, captions are more than just a dialogue. They involve speaker identification, sound effects, tone of voice and other auditory cues. There are limitations to closed captions. The FCC requires closed captions only for television broadcasts. That means DVD, movies, and theater are not covered by the FCC rules. Another issue with broadcast captioning is that a viewer has no control over the setting. One TV show uses a font that is one way. Another show may do the font a different way.

Another thing with captioning is that you can see CC1, CC2, CC3 and CC4, all on the same channel. If you have English on CC1 and Spanish on CC2, they can interfere with each other. If you like watching Spanish captions of English language shows, your TV needs the CC3 channel. Not all TVs are capable of reading all captioning signals. Some only may only allow you to read captions for CC1 and CC2.

Audio Description: Jay Wyant

How many of you are familiar with description? You may be thinking to yourself, well TDI is all about captioning, why do I have to know about audio description? We think that a lot of what we are doing may benefit hard of hearing people as well.

Audio description is generally defined as narration in between the dialogue. You could be watching a program with dialogue going on, and somebody walks into the room or there is some other action. Audio description tells you what is going on, provided there is room in the dialogue to do it. That narration is only available through SAP.

You find the program, turn it on, and activate the captions. Then SAP becomes available to you. It only works for stereo television, because it takes stereo sound. General sound is moved to one of the two components, then SAP is put on the other component.

We tend to use one person to narrate an entire program. You rely on, and learn to listen to, that voice and that pace for the rest of the dialogue. And for those of you who may not be aware, a lot of people who are blind or low vision can understand very fast speech. It’s like people who become good at speed reading. The FCC regulations for captioning do not apply to audio description. There is no requirement for audio in any form anywhere.

Audio description has limitations too. The SAP channel is wonderful; so is Spanish. You might have an ABC television show, prime time, in Spanish. You turn on the channel, and audio description is not available. You can’t find it. That’s because you can either have one or the other with broadcast television. [Demonstrates a quick sample of an audio described program, with captioning of the program on the bottom of the screen, and captioning of what is being described in the upper left hand corner].

Part Two

Taking Captioning Beyond TV: John Mazza

Our emerging technology grant is taking it beyond TV. CaptionMax has won two of the three available grant awards from the Department of Education. Our task is to fund the development of the accessibility for emerging technologies. This includes DVD, webcast, portable devices, all of the things that are currently not covered by the FCC regulations, which are rapidly being implemented and used on a regular basis in the classroom. We have outgrown the regulation.

Our two grants are both for five years. We are in the first year, and we are excited to show you what we have been able to do. The way things are going, no one can say where we will be in year four or five. We feel that it goes beyond disability applications and has even broader, universal applications. Our five-year goal is to set this standard, to be part of the educational landscape as a whole. We wish to go way beyond the standard captioning and descriptive practices that you have just seen.

We collaborate with media suppliers. We don’t develop the content, but we are involved in the process, so that the additional captioning and audio description you see is part of the process. We find that the integration part is probably the most important part because all things flow together. There is a sense of continuity in these DVDs. We use Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) as a distribution partner.

Some of you may remember the Captioned Media Program. They have been around a long time and we have been working with them. Now they have changed their name to include description. They have a very well-established video distribution system that allows access from the Internet. We have partnered with them as a distribution arm.

Most important, I think, is that we rely on our ultimate clients, which are our Community Advisory Board. These are folks who are from the blind and low vision, deaf and hard of hearing sector. They are educators and people of all walks of life who advise us and guide us in the process of developing what we are working on.

New Technologies Create New Opportunities: John Mazza

Our grant is not a research grant, but it is our feeling that there could be a ton of research opportunity around it in terms of literacy, learning styles, use of multiple information streams in learning, especially in the classroom as we spoke about. New technologies create new opportunities. We are being introduced almost weekly to a new use of an existing technology. This is where you will see the vast difference between the current broadcast scenario, which is mandated, and the opportunities that CaptionMax can explore with this grant.

We have almost unlimited ability to put in information. When we talked about CC1 and CC2 and CC3, that was about the end of the story. With multiple tracks, we have separate tracks but multiple audio and subtitle choices for multiple languages without compromising one or the other. This has more universal and broader appeal. The Internet has given us the ability to interact in real time across all time zones 24/7. That does not exist in the current broadcast realm.

User options aren’t just helpful for the ultimate client or student or the viewer, but also let teachers and educators decide what is needed for this particular application, depending on their needs. Also, teachers would have to work with a broadcast schedule to record a certain program for classroom application or broadcast in the classroom. This takes that right off the table. A flexible interface allows design to fit user needs and it’s impossible to do that on television. We are working to develop a feature that can let you select a language or how you would like it to look or how fast it goes.

Our primary deliverable loop was DVD for this grant. Why did we choose DVD? It’s the most inexpensive and widely available format out there. Four year olds can use DVD. It doesn’t require any teaching or training. Schools have the capacity to use it. They are strapped and can barely keep what they need for basics going, much less hope and dream for the latest in streaming video.

Our partnership with the Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) makes it possible for us to deliver files over the web. It’s a simple matter of reformatting it for us. So anybody can pull these down any time, anywhere. They can be maniulated from that point.

Jay Wyant

Have any of you ever used program CFV? That became DCMP. It has long programs of movies, cooking shows, anything like that, all with captions mandated. They continued to focus on this arena. Teachers and student can get it for free.

CaptionMax Adds a New Role: Jay Wyant

John Mazza talked about DVD field. In the first year of the grant we rely on consumer feedback. To do what? What is possible and what is out there. Then we get their feedback to see what works. That is what we are doing right now. One thing we have done is that all of our videos and DVD have auto play. Voice navigation is default. So instead of turning on the caption or turning on navigation, that happens automatically. If you are a sighted person, and you don’t want auto play, you can push the button to turn it off rather than a person requiring accessibility having to turn it on.

This has changed, in some ways, how CaptionMax works. We are a media accessibility company. Up to this point what that meant was that our job was to add on description or captions. We didn’t touch anything else. Either we’d send the tape back, or send the caption file back and let the producer do the encoding. With this grant we added on the role of DVD author. That means that we create the menu. They give us their menu framework, their design type, but we do the layout. We do the menu design, menu instructions. We create all of that stuff.

We have taken on an authoring role in addition to an accessibility role because accessibility is not an add-on function but part of the whole way it works. So we have become authors instead of collaborating with someone else. That way you can ensure accessibility is the first option.

With the spoken menu, instead of simply reading the menu, the narrator is speaking and adding more information than what is on the screen. On the screen it may say, “go back to the chapter menu”. We simplify with things like “repeat the action”. Or “arrow up” or “down” instead of trying to use a mouse. It is simple for the low vision or blind person to navigate up and down. [Demonstrates navigating]

I had a cochlear implant a year and half ago. It has been fun for me. I can read and practice listening at the same time. The narrator has a clear, even voice, another added value for someone like me with listening and reading.

Part Three

Captions and Subtitles: Jay Wyant

With DVDs, you have been hearing the word “caption.” Now I will change to the word “subtitle”. We can caption. Technically speaking, that is what you put in line 21. Now, subtitles are what you have known as dialogue with foreign language subtitles. But subtitles in English for the deaf and hard of hearing, sometimes called SDH, is the same information that you would have in captions such as sound effect, speaker identification and other auditory cues.

Subtitles are activated by a menu on the screen of the DVD rather than automatically through the television. Sometimes you have to turn the captioning off to see DVD subtitles.

What DVDs can now do is open up the scope of things like font, color, and background. They can be designed to do anything that we feel is the most user friendly or effective or black and white. We have up to 32 subtitles. That is why, when you rent a DVD from Blockbuster or other places, you get up to 31 languages plus English.

Maybe we can add multiple subtitle options. We now make subtitles verbatim. There could be a choice for a slower reading version. This is where we started to ask for teacher feedback. Does this work? Is this something that is useful in the classroom?

[Gives demonstration] We have varying sizes of text and and color highlighting. Then different cues are clear and easier to read. We had yellow subtitles with black edging. We saw on TV a translucent box to see through, so it does not block what is going on behind the subtitle screen. We can go back and forth depending on what the person or class needs. We can provide all of these subtitle options on one DVD.

Beyond Captioning and Description: Jay Wyant

Another fun thing we are doing, beyond captioning and description, is looking at how we can make the caption or subtitle be more than just a subtitle. There can be interactive elements that you click on, with an auditory or visual clue, or website, or dictionary definition, so teachers can be a program provider themselves. People who are creating these programs can collaborate and say, we want to work with this and you can do this for us, and the teacher can say, I use this for my students.

I will give you an example. Watch and you will see a subtitle turn green that will be clickable. [Demonstrates] You saw that green subtitle. What will happen is if you are quick enough to click on it, it will open to a definition of what that word means.

You recall earlier that there was a choice between fast or video or audio description. Forget about that. You don’t have to worry about finding SAP or the menu, or worry about whether you will have to give it up in exchange for a Spanish language program. We have eight audio tracks. You can have Spanish as well as audio and video description and other languages, all put together. So if the teacher is focusing on Spanish, we do that, plus captioning, plus description. It can offer a lot of options depending on the teacher’s classroom needs.

More Fun Stuff: Jay Wyant

Now the fun stuff again. The limitation of audio description on television depends on the dialogue. If you have very fast-paced or very heavy dialogue, our job is to make content accessible. In this case we can freeze the video, leave you more description with more information, unfreeze the video and go on. Losing some of the program is a tradeoff. The advantage is you level the playing field for someone who is low vision or blind. They’re not wondering. Why did that happen? Why did that go the way it went?

If we show this version, it happens automatically. We can, in the future make it optional so that if the classroom tends to go more visual you can choose to freeze or unfreeze a particular frame. Right now it is not an option.

Does it work not only for blind or low vision, but also people who have learning disabilities? People who may be learning Spanish or English in another language? If we can find data that validates description as well as captioning for others, and prove that audience is larger, it is easier to get money for all this.

Part Four

Another fun thing: Jay Wyant

Somebody can get both captions or subtitles as well as what is being described, so they are learning how somebody else would describe this. Does this have value in learning? We need data on this too.

We have had very positive feedback from board members and other people who had opportunity to look at what we are doing. [Demonstrates some of features described previously].

I don’t know about you, but for me, captions that describe information should be seamless. You don’t realize that description part is not part of the original DVD. We added on both the description and caption. But for you, the user, it is all one thing.

The more information we provide, the more time it takes for us to do it. We are trying to figure out what options are the key options.

We did find a top educational provider. They are now picking and selecting what programs they wanted to be the first for us to make accessible. I want to remind you they are selling this. The program is distributed by them. As a teacher or school you can buy it, and we prefer that you buy it as well, because our partners are allowing us to provide this for a free loan as part of the deal. But they need to make money doing this, so there is a delicate balance.

What More Can We Do? Jay Wyant

Now, what more can we do? Lots more. It is not just students that may have access issues. The teacher may also have low vision or hearing loss. So, lesson plans, all of the extras that will be created to go with the DVD, we can make those accessible as well. If you buy a DVD from this media group, that comes with a user guide that will be made accessible.

Another option we might do is more text elements, depending on what we think people need or want. We will rely on your feedback. We are open to more ideas. We also are media providers. If we create a DVD that is accessible, we will take it to the next level and screen it on the web. As you know, iPods are not accessible. They don’t have captions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t subtitle.

We are looking at the next four years to see where our educational system is going and what schools will be using. We know they use DVD now. But year four, maybe they will be doing something else. We want to be ready to make that trend accessible.

We’re looking at how this will be promoted so people know about it. DCMP has a network that they work with, plus we work with the national communication association. They are a major provider of PBS programming for educational purposes. We also work with a strong educational provider in colonial Williamsburg. We hope to upgrade our website soon, and I would appreciate your feedback on how to improve that.

Questions and Answers

Q: This is terrific, but I am not a teacher. I wonder if you see this as going out to general public at some point so that my DVD could be enhanced?

John Mazza: Due to the nature of the grant, we are required to stay within the parameters. The goal that CaptionMax has is that this would become standard practice in schools, period. Its application, once used, is really limitless. You can see this is going to apply to training videos for large companies. It has enormous potential. I don’t think the genie will stay in the bottle that long. We have just kind of set the groundwork, we hope, and we want to see accessibility as a first option everywhere.

Jay Wyant: We wrote a grant proposal, and it was our idea to make the DCMP our partner. One reason is that we wanted to make sure it was widely available. DCMP is upgrading their website at Any day now you will be able to download or have them send you a DVD, with free shipping or free download. To quality for that you must certify on an application that you are deaf or hard of hearing or low vision, or the parent or teacher.

Q: Can you explain more about DCMP?

Jay Wyant: It’s Described and Captioned Media Program, formerly Caption Media Program. It is “owned” by NAD [National Association of the Deaf] which has a federal grant to operate it. They got their grant, we got our grant, and we partnered. It has been a wonderful relationship.

Q: I am really impressed with all of the capabilities of this. I am hearing and blind, and I work with all disabilities. I am really impressed that the video pauses as it finishes the description and seamless. It is amazing to me. I have never seen or heard anything like that before. You talked about the Community Advisory Board. How many are on your Board and where are they from? Are they consumers?

Jay Wyant: We have ten members on our board. They are from Minneapolis, Santa Rosa, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. One new member is a researcher at the University of Tennessee. We also have a well-known deaf researcher who retired and moved to Tucson. We have a new member who is blind from birth and 17 years old. We also have a children’s board, more informal. We have been working with blind, deaf, hard of hearing organizations to recruit children across the country. We want more. If you are a teacher, in a classroom with deaf or hard of hearing or blind students, please talk to us because we would like to send you a demonstration or get feedback from your students.

John Mazza: Jay and I do a lot of outreach in informal work in the Minneapolis and San Francisco area. Particularly here, with an organization whose whole mission is to be able to identify products that could be developed and commercially viable for the low vision blind community.

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