Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

Yesterday was also #captionTHIS day in the Basque country

Yesterday, those following any deaf-associated Twitter accounts will have seen that they were full of the #captionTHIS hashtag.

#captionTHIS is a campaign to make those involved in all kinds of visual media aware of just how important captions are to deaf people (or hearing who may also want visual language support on TV, film, video etc.). And to highlight just how badly some of them are doing in delivering a satisfactory service.

For a measured and polite introduction to #captionTHIS – take a look at http://www.nad.org/blogs/jeannette-johnson/captionthis. Alternatively, if you want to see what frustrated deaf people look like when captions go missing or wrong, follow a few on Twitter around the time that pre-recorded programmes like ‘The Apprentice’ are on and read the frustration as week after week, instead of pre-recorded, quality captioning, they deliver terrible quality live transcription with a many-second lag.

This post is also about captions, but from a slightly different point of view. It looks at what happens when captioning goes wrong – and becomes a potential tool for oppression, through the eyes of the Basque Deaf community, in Spain, a few years ago.

The only reason I know anything about this is that, just before starting my Masters at CDS in Bristol, I went on a trip to seek out the different Deaf communities in Spain.

Why Spain?

Well, because despite being one country, it is formed of a number of different, more-or-less autonomous, linguistically-based nations/regions. Being interested in linguistic nationhood, I was interested to find out how far Deaf people in each nation felt they fitted into either their local, or national identities.

What I found was that (perhaps unsurprisingly for those who know the Deaf community well) identity – and how it is performed by the individual – has a lot to do with where the person goes to school.

Spain used to have a number of regional Deaf schools and so older Deaf people described more complex identities. However, at the time I visited, only two remained. That made the choice of where to go pretty simple. Essentially, if your family saw themselves as Catalan, you went to the Barcelona school and learned to use Catalan sign, read Catalan first – and retained a strong sense of belonging to the Catalan nation. If not, then you went to Madrid, used Spanish sign, read Spanish first and generally saw yourself as a Spaniard.

The only exception to this were the Basque Deaf people that I met. There, although all the young Deaf people that I spoke to went to a school in Madrid, they had all returned home feeling strongly Basque…. only to find that, even though they had been born in the Basque country, and had Basque names – they couldn’t access the key marker of Basque identity – the Basque language. Having been sent away to school because they were ‘Deaf’… they had come home to find that while they were away, they had lost their regional identity and become ‘Spaniards’.

And that’s where the subject of captions came up.

Why captions?

Well, one of the things that helps to support each Spanish region’s identity is a selection of local-language television channels.

In particularly strong identity-regions, these channels are ubiquitous. Rather like the wired-in state radios in the old Soviet Union, nearly every hotel and bar has them on… and, often, because of the ambient noise, they have the captions on.

That’s right – captions; blanket coverage, high quality, pre-recorded, accurate captions in the local language, funded by local government.

100% accessibility? Well, no – not quite.

You see, while captions generally mean that those who want to read them can, in most cases in the Spanish regions – those reading them are not deaf people, but hearing.

In fact, you could go so far as to suggest that Deaf people are positively excluded from reading them – because unless you’re a lucky Catalan and learned to read your regional language in your local Deaf school, the captions are probably in a language that you’ve never learned.

Which is a problem if you’re a young Deaf Basque, who has returned home from the ‘Spanish’ Deaf school – only to find that you have less access to information than you did in ‘Spain’ because the local TV is captioned in a language that they can’t read.

It’s not often that captions could be thought of as a ‘tool of oppression’ – But, in the hands of the Basque local government, that’s what they had become. A service, provided to hearing people to supplement their viewing pleasure. A service that ‘occupied’ the little bit of the TV screen reserved for accessibility – but that occupied it with something that positively excluded Deaf people, who’s lived experience prevented them from accessing it.

Makes you think, doesn’t it, about what other groups might be excluded by provision shaped not by individual assessed needs, but unchallenged, categorical assumptions.

I wonder who else we’re oppressing in the name of service…

One comment on “Yesterday was also #captionTHIS day in the Basque country

  1. mmostynthomas
    June 7, 2012

    A very, very interesting post, Mike. Thanks for the insight!

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This entry was posted on June 7, 2012 by in Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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