A conversation about podcast accessibility

A few days ago, a colleague of mine contacted me about the accessibility of podcasts for the hearing impaired. She knew that I had co-founded a service that automated the transcription of audio into text and thought it would be a great idea if all podcasts offered a text transcript of their episodes for the deaf. I'll be honest, while that is one of the benefits of having a text based transcript of your podcast, I never looked into what percentage of the population is deaf. So I did a little research and as per the World Federation of the Deaf, there are approximately 70 million hearing impaired people in the world. That's a rather large audience that's unfortunately missing out on the enjoyment of podcasts.

Being a web developer for many years, I knew that we haven't really done a great job of making rich content very accessible. I tried to find any complaints about the inaccessibility of podcasts to the hearing impaired. I came upon this article from 2015 on Time.com titled "Can We Build an Internet That Includes the Hearing Impaired?" While the article doesn't mention podcasts specifically, it does provide a very clear description about how poor the experience is trying to consume audio and video content on the web as a hearing impaired individual. Speaking from personal experience, the author, Steve Friess makes the argument that those who rely on text as a replacement for audio "are being left behind, stuck reading recaps, tweets, and live-blogs instead of experiencing key cultural and news events firsthand like everyone else." The author also makes the argument that "An awful lot of people are going to start missing out on an awful lot of stuff." I'd argue that an awful lot of people are already missing out on an awful lot of stuff.

With this in mind and considering most podcasts are episodic, the hardest part of producing a transcript of a podcast is turnaround time and accuracy. Manual transcription is usually very accurate but takes a long time and, depending on the length of the podcast, can be cost prohibitive. The Time article makes the argument that while automated transcription services exist they're not accurate "But YouTube also provides an automated captioning service of such poor quality that it creates more, not less, confusion." While that may have been true in 2015, services such as Microsoft's Cognitive Services and IBM's Watson have come a long way in terms of accuracy. These advancements can be seen in automated transcription services, such as Gumshoe, where we can deliver accurate transcripts very quickly. 

Last but certainly not least, the article asserts "Either way, someone needs to get on this sooner rather than later. Most hearing loss is irreversible and inconvenient..." While this is an unfortunate truth, we're working hard to help ease the production of the transcripts. We will also deliver a richer set of features that will enable anyone with a podcast make it more accessible.

We can and we will do better.