The fourth in our series of blog posts offering perspectives on Pandemic Pedagogy, is by Coreen McGuire, Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British History at Durham University. Her first book, Measuring Difference, Numbering Normal: Setting the standards for disability in the interwar period combines history of medicine, science and technology studies, and disability history. She won the Disability History Association prize for outstanding article in 2020 and is currently working on a co-authored book project on British scientist Dr Phyllis Kerridge’s contributions to science in Britain with Dr Jaipreet Virdi for Johns Hopkins Press.
Hearing loss affects around 12 million people (1 in 5 adults) in the UK. Despite its ubiquity, it remains a stigmatised condition that some choose not to disclose or to hide from people in the workplace due to fear of discrimination. The pandemic has had especially pernicious effects on Deaf people.  It has also been harmful to the broader spectrum of people who present as hearing and who do not or cannot disclose their hearing loss. Imagine if you will, a person who has successfully managed their hearing loss in the workplace prior to the pandemic using a combination of hearing aids, lip-reading, and other assistive technology. Now working at home, their meeting and interactions with service-users take place over zoom where there are no captions and speakers often turn their videos off due to low bandwidth (precluding lip-reading). The impossibility of using (most current NHS) hearing aids with headphones means that they have to rely on their remaining residual hearing to try to comprehend their colleagues. This means that their attention and energy is constantly exhausted in the pursuit of basic comprehension, leading to fatigue, mistakes, frustration, and accusations of incompetence. The situation is so intolerable that this person is planning to quit a highly skilled job that they have worked at for over 25 years. If this highly trained professional is finding it impossible to request or receive adequate support for managing their hearing loss, then one can only imagine how difficult it must be for the many students now working in similar situations.
Online learning has exacerbated existing problems around hearing loss and technology. Despite the fact that the technology that would allow people with hearing loss to participate in online learning is available, it has been frustratingly underused and underappreciated. At the start of last term, I searched advanced zoom features to try and find live subtitle functionality. I found a feature that allowed me to enhance my appearance; there was not one for captions. Building these kinds of priorities into technologies is a choice, and one that has caused widespread frustration.
Subtitles are a brilliant learning tool and a good example of a ‘curb cut effect’. This effect is so called because when disabled activists in the US fought to create dropped kerbs for wheelchair use it was quickly apparent that this design feature also benefited groups including caregivers using prams, children using bicycles, and those delivering heavy goods. In this way, assistive technology ends up benefiting everyone in society.
Subtitles work in this way because while though were originally designed by and for Deaf people, they are now appreciated by a much larger swathe of users. They allow people to watch videos while in a noisy environment or when in a more public space, something that is especially beneficial to students who do not have private study space while working at home. They help comprehension for students for whom English is not a first language, and help people learn languages more effectively. They improve our ability to understand and retain technical information. For instance, a student learning Scandinavian history for the first time has told me that having captions would allow them to effectively recall and search for information on historical individuals whose names are not obvious from their pronunciation. Crucially, subtitles help people for cognitive reasons as they aid comprehension and processing. Indeed, they may be one of the most valuable teaching aids we have as they improve general cognition, attention, and comprehension of material. That they help us both retain information and remember material means they are an invaluable revision tool. However, incorporating these tools into university teaching has presented some considerable challenges.
For the purposes of this blog, I have been using captions and subtitles as synonymous terms, which is not strictly accurate. A simple way of thinking about the difference between the two is that subtitles involve translation, while captions simply reproduce speech. What is critical to note is that automatic captions are an inherently flawed solution. Voice recognition technologies tend to rely on biased data sets, which lead to inadequate and faulty results—especially for users with higher voices and/or with non-standard accents. As a historian of technology and disability, I am fascinated by that fact that this is due to the origination of this technology in the telephone system. As a Scottish woman however, I am just frustrated. Systems that work algorithmically are better and I have used this effectively to transcribe oral histories taken online. So far, though, I have not been able to use these systems to effectively live-transcribe speech, though there are promises that this may soon be possible.
In the case of pre-recordings, far better are STL subtitles, which allow users to edit grammar, font, format, and correct any errors. They are much easier to design so the text appears in exact synchronicity with the spoken word, which is far better for comprehension. This ensures that the subtitles are accessible for users with dyslexia or sight loss. I should note here that almost all my knowledge about these processes is owed to the generous sharing of knowledge of colleagues (particularly on Twitter) who have shared their practices for creating subtitles. I spent time over the summer working on embedding subtitles into online videos and became fairly accomplished at it. However, it takes a huge amount of time to do well. A five-minute introductory film I created for one module before the start of term took me a full Saturday to successfully subtitle. Even allowing for increased speed from practice, this is an impossible ask to put on top of a full teaching load in the best of times, never-mind while working from home in a pandemic. Realistically, we cannot ask individual lecturers to take responsibility for providing subtitles. Help and support for this, including live transcription services, must be embedded into the wider infrastructure of the University, ideally backed by government support.
The coronavirus pandemic and the repeated UK lockdowns have revealed patterns of societal inequities through the repeated correlation between inequality and high mortality. Working from home has also underlined structures of privilege in the subtle advantages that households with good access to WIFI, green-space, and flexible working patterns have over those without. Yet the shift from office to home and the move from teaching face-to-face to teaching online has had some advantages. For those with chronic illnesses, the disabled, and any students who does not fit the ‘traditional’ student profile virtual learning technologies have allowed some greater degree of control over learning, flexibility around teaching, and opportunity for participation. It is crucial that these changes to teaching practice and these opportunities remain in place long term. Subtitles are a crucial part of the way that we can retain and embed accessibility into our learning in the long term.
 Royal National Institute for the Deaf, ‘Facts and figures’ Accessed January 2021 <https://rnid.org.uk/about-us/research-and-policy/facts-and-figures/>
 The Pandemic has disproportionately negatively impacted on Deaf people including on their ability to access healthcare according to a survey done by Sign Health, Accessed January 2021 https://signhealth.org.uk/resources/coronavirus-impacts-report/
 I am presenting this as a hypothetical scenario to retain this individual’s anonymity.
 Managing hearing loss is a term deployed by Karen Sayer and Graeme Gooday in their 2017 book, Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830–1930
 Many auditory technologies we now rely on have resulted from disabled innovation.
 M. A. Gernsbacher, ‘Video Captions Benefit Everyone’ Policy insights from the behavioral and brain sciences, 2:1 (2015), 195–202. doi.org/10.1177/2372732215602130
 M. Mills and X. Li, ‘Vocal Features: From Voice Identification to Speech Recognition by Machine’, Technology and Culture 60, 2 (2019)
 Disabled activists on Twitter are a constant source of knowledge and innovation and I’ve been especially grateful to advice garnered from Jai Virdi, James Sumner, and Vanessa Heggie. I’ve also been impressed to organisations who have supported subtitles in their conferences, such as the British Society for the History of Science. Megan Baumhammer and Sarah Qidwai also did a brilliant job of making their virtual HistsTM conferences accessible.
If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (email@example.com), History UK’s Education Officer.