When it came time to give a presentation, I logged into Zoom. The host and I did a quick test of the audio, video, and captions. Everything worked. Then, as the clock struck the hour, I shared my screen and the host started talking.

On the outside, I smiled and nodded my head. On the inside, my stomach knotted and my body went into panic mode. Frantically, I clicked through the options and preferences. Nothing looked amiss. Thankfully, I lipread the host saying, "Take it away, Meryl."

I switched to presenter mode and forgot about the fact that I had no captions. At the end of the presentation, I asked attendees to enter their questions into the chatbox. I calmly informed them that I had no captions on my end.

How did this happen? I've given many presentations on Zoom with captions and they worked while I presented. I've always had to hide them to prevent them from distracting me. While it helped they didn't appear during my presentation, it remained worrisome because I would need them again at some point.

As soon as I stopped sharing my screen, the captions woke up. The Q&A went well since all the questions appeared in the chatbox. Since I was the lone speaker and did all the talking, I could survive without the captions. Imagine if I had not been the only speaker in this scenario, as it happened for someone else.

 

What Happened at a Webinar?

Earlier this year, Diamond held a webinar that ran into a bigger snag. We had a panel and one of the panelists depended on captions like I do. In the middle of the webinar, the captions disappeared. It isn't unusual for captions to stop for a minute or two, but you never know how long they'll be out.

Diamond Founding Partner Joe Devon froze. He debated what to do. Should he stop the webinar? Go on with the show? 

Joe told me the story.

"The captions broke mid-stream today," Joe said. "I was heartbroken... Been doing events for a decade, never fail to learn something each time. Though not sure what I learned about captions going down midstream."

He ended up moving forward with the webinar. The team switched to automatic captions. At first, the captions flew in at lightning speed. Eventually, the automatic captions settled down. 

But the situation made it challenging for the deaf panelist to participate. Fortunately, the panelists received the questions in advance of the event. Joe typically jumps around on the questions. In this case, he stuck with the list and went through it in order.

One of the panelists in this session was Emily Ogle, a senior regulatory strategist — accessibility at Cerner. Like me, she relies on lip-reading and high-quality captioning. We get the most out of a conversation when we have both. 

It also helps to work in a quiet setting. When she goes into the office, she has to book a conference room for every call. It has been much easier to communicate with everyone working remotely as sounds don't come from all around.

When the captions disappeared, she became a little anxious that she wouldn't be able to follow the conversation. The moderator informed attendees of the problem and continued.

"When it was my turn to speak, I repeated the topic so I could be sure I was answering the right thing," Emily said. "The problem is I wasn't able to build on what the other panelists said since I couldn't follow."

Unfortunately, Diamond isn't the only one to encounter this. On most video calls, I often run into captions disappearing for a minute or two. Curious about other people's experiences, I posted on LinkedIn asking if it happened to them. Quite a few folks shared their story. Clearly, there's a need to be prepared in case this happens.

 

Screenshot from the webinar where the captions went out

 

And Then This Happened

One of the things I feared as a presenter happened. It started with my attending the first session. Alas, the captions didn't kick in. The panel began but stopped when they saw the captions were a no-show.

After 10 minutes, the moderator told everyone to exit and log back in. The session started about 20 minutes late. And the captions finally worked.

It made me grateful my session was second in hopes the captioning problems would be ironed out. However, I was in a different room. I wasn't sure how captions worked in that room.

I showed up for my session. All good.

Or so I thought.

About 5 to 10 minutes in, the captions disappeared! The moderator, captioner, and I were talking or typing in the chatbox. (I couldn't hear what they said, of course.) Apparently, the captioner had lost access.

So, I told everyone (voice and chatbox) that I won't go on without captions. Not only because I have an accent that hails from nowhere but also some may depend on captions like I do. It's not equitable.

Eventually, the moderator turned on automatic captions. I continued for a few minutes then stopped as I finally woke up and remembered autocraptions hate my accent. When it wasn't looking like the captions were coming back, I continued except I captioned myself and worked through my presentation.

At some point, the human captions worked again. By that point, time was almost up. The moderator was gracious enough to extend the time.

I felt like I was all over the place managing captions, my presentation, and all the great questions that came pouring in. Thankfully, attendees said they walked away with valuable information. Whew. #MissionAccomplished

One thing I'd change. I wish I had skipped the presentation and turned it into Q&A session.

It turned out the event was captioned by the company that I no longer recommend because they were bought out by another company. This kind of muck-up is a regular occurrence for the company. Diamond used to work with this company and no longer uses them.

Because of this, I maintain a list of recommended companies for captioning live events.

 

What Can We Learn from All This?

The challenge in creating a backup plan is that there's no one solution that fits all. It depends on the platform you use. It depends on the captioning service. On top of it all, attendees will be using a variety of devices and apps to join the conversation.

A Verizon Media and Publicis Media survey has found 80 percent of the people who use captions are not deaf or hard of hearing. That said, it's worth having an accessibility continuity plan for captions. The key is to create a simple backup plan otherwise no one will enforce it.

Before digging into the workarounds, here's another issue to include in the backup plan: be prepared with an alternative way for the captioners to access the audio. Provide them with this information prior to the event. Occasionally, the audio goes out and the captioners can't continue. This is also a factor at in-person events.

Back to disappearing captions. Here are three options for dealing with them. 

 

1. Work with a captioning service that has live captions for browsers.

Ask the captioning service if they offer StreamText, 1CapApp, or CaptionCast. These services make it possible to share a link to the live transcript of the event. So, if the captions go out on the video call, the transcript should still work.

Be sure to have the URL to the captions available before the event begins. Share the link with attendees at the start. Some people like to refer to them in case they missed something in the event captions. If the captions quit working, share the link again.

 

2. Switch to automatic captions.

The quickest backup to live captions going out is to switch to automatic captions. But that can have its own problems. Additionally, not all platforms offer automatic captions as a built-in feature like Zoom does. Check with the platform before scheduling the meeting. 

The downside is that if live captions work again, you won't know unless you switch back and check. Ideally, someone from the team behind the webinar should be in touch with the captioner. Before the event, exchange backup contact options.

 

3. Share the URL from a transcription service.

The event host may have an account for a live transcription service. Some of them come with a feature where you can share the URL with others. It doesn't require downloading an app or logging in as some apps do. This feature is typically available to paid account holders. Two apps that include this feature are Thisten and Otter.ai. Here's a list of caption apps and tools for more options.

The disadvantage of this method is that you may not know who is speaking. With option No. 1, you're still using live captioners and they always identify the speaker. 

 

Tips for Caption Backup Planning

These tips can help with other problems besides captions. For example, every event should have a contact person for when there's any kind of problem, tech and otherwise. Let attendees know who they should contact if they run into any issues. Encourage everyone to speak up as soon as something breaks. Offer a way for attendees to contact someone privately as some may not feel comfortable interrupting the entire session.

Personally, I have a huge fear of this. Once during a webinar, I had been multitasking. I verified my microphone was muted. When I accidentally played a video on my end, everyone heard it! How did this happen? I don't know. I obsessively check to be sure I'm muted.

Interview vendors. This includes the video platform and captioning service. Ask them about the problems they encounter and how they solved them. Or list some of the problems and ask what they do when each happens. 

Since quality captions matter, ask the vendor for examples of captions in action. And understand their process for caption the event. The biggest challenges with live captions are delay and accuracy. Many viewers may not watch if there's too much of a delay or poor accuracy rates.

Make an accessible meetings checklist and workarounds when things go wrong. For captions, it could be something like this:

Captions disappeared?

  1. Inform the audience of the problem.
  2. Provide a link to browser transcript.
  3. Verify captioners have audio.
  4. Switch to automatic captions.
  5. Communicate with captioners.

Before event:

  1. Exchange contact information with captioners.
  2. Provide captioners with alternative audio source.
  3. Obtain link to a browser-based transcript.

Test the process before holding the event. You want to confirm live captioning and the link to the browser-based transcript work. Also, test switching to automatic captions and back to live captions.

If you have a post-event survey, pay attention to comments. Follow up on any problems mentioned. People say they've reported problems and never heard from the company. This affects branding especially when it involves accessibility problems. Accessibility supporters aren't shy about speaking up in public and naming companies.

I'd like to see video platform providers add a special button (accessible, of course) that alerts the team there's a problem. The button could have an optional field to quickly describe the problem. Or perhaps, have standard options (no sound, no captions, etc.) with one fill-in for when none of the above applies.

 

Last Bit of Advice

You can do some things to help mollify the situation for presenters or panelists who prefer captions. When you contact them, ask the best way to help if the captions disappear or other accessibility tools break. 

Personally, I'd appreciate having an assigned partner who privately chats with me. If the platform doesn't have private chat, then exchange cell numbers for texting. Knowing I have someone there to support me eases my anxiety.

Not all companies will have the foresight to prepare for these possibilities. Attendees can come prepared if they want to ensure they have captions. Find an automatic captioning or transcription app now. That way, they'll have it handy if anything happens. The aforementioned list of caption apps and tools is a good place to start. Captioning video calls has a few options.

Diamond aims to ensure every single webinar is accessible for participants and attendees. Even established companies that prioritize accessibility can slip up. And when we do, we take the time to learn from it to better ourselves and share our learnings.

Whenever captions don't show up, I feel like I'm flying without a parachute. That's what happened when during the host's opening and introduction. Unfortunately, technology breaks or doesn't work as expected. And sometimes you can't fix it on the spot. No one can prevent captions from disappearing. But with a little backup planning, you can lessen the side effects. Good luck with your virtual event!