So why is Zoom, the most popular video-conferencing company, asking people with hearing loss to pay for the equal access that they need? For those of us with hearing loss, captions are our ramps. But Zoom keeps them out of reach, hidden behind a paywall.

We should not be forced to pay for the feature we require for equal access. Like ramps, captioning is good universal design, benefiting not only people with hearing issues but all users, including people for whom English is a second language.

People with hearing loss often feel cut off from others because conversation is difficult. The pandemic exacerbated this issue as communication moved behind masks and online. For most people, video conference calls have been a great way to stay connected with friends and family, but for people with hearing loss, it is not as easy as it sounds. Poor audio quality and weak Internet connections create a mismatch between sound and lip movements, making speech-reading difficult — especially if discussions involve more than one person.

Captions change all that by providing the backup information we need to fill in the parts of the conversation we miss because of our hearing struggles.

At the start of the pandemic, I started a petition urging video-conferencing companies to provide free access to auto-captioning for people with hearing loss. It now boasts more than 67,000 signatures. Only Zoom remains inaccessible.

The gold standard of captioning is Communication Access Realtime Translation, or CART, whereby a live transcriber types what is spoken in real time. The captions appear at the bottom of the screen, similar to closed captions on a television set. Zoom has this capability to support this service, but with captioning services running at $200 per hour or higher, this is not a realistic option for many people with hearing loss, especially for personal conversations.

The good news is that technology is catching up. Enabled through speech recognition and artificial intelligence, automatic speech recognition (ASR) captions can be a great alternative for personal communications. Zoom has high-quality ASR captions on its platform, but they are available only for paid plans. To provide equal access, Zoom must make its ASR captions available for people with hearing loss on all plans, including free ones. Or simpler still, it should make ASR captions available for all users, as its competitors Google and Microsoft have done since early in the pandemic.

In response to this article, a spokesperson for Zoom offered this statement: “As part of our commitment to connecting users across the world, we are focused on providing an accessible platform for diverse communities and continually enhancing our features in support of that mission.” The company added, “We intend to make automatic closed captioning available to all of our users in the future.”

Of course, when in the future that would happen remains unclear. This is something the company has been telling me for months.

The lack of ASR captions on Zoom has taken a huge emotional toll on people with hearing loss during the pandemic. Everything has moved online: work, school, social interactions and entertainment. Imagine eight months of social isolation, not only without in-person visits with family and friends, but without the ability to converse comfortably virtually either. Many people with hearing loss are seniors, who might live alone. The isolation and sadness can be overwhelming, especially during the holidays.

As noted in a recent CNN Business article, “everyone you know uses Zoom.” The company’s chief executive, Eric Yuan, said, “In 10 to 20 years, when people write the history of covid-19, I want them to write that Zoom did the right thing for the world.” Accessibility is the right thing. It is time for Zoom to move its high-quality integrated ASR captions out from behind a paywall.

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