The most complaints that we at the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities have received over these past few weeks is the frustration of hearing impaired or deaf persons not being able to communicate, as the face masks make it impossible to read lips, it muffles the sound, and the distance that has to be observed makes it even more challenging.

Access to news bulletins on television are also a major challenge. The National Council is currently securing legal opinion on a strategy for advocating for the rights of hearing impaired or deaf persons not using a signed language to communicate, regarding equal access to live broadcasts on national television of events of national importance like the COVID19 pandemic.

However we must properly understand the difference between captions and or sub-titles..

Captions vs sub-titles

Sub-titles provide a text alternative for dialogue. Sub-titles assume an audience can hear the audio, but need the dialogue provided in text form as well.  Meanwhile, captions are not only a supplement for dialogue but also other relevant parts of the soundtrack – describing background noises for example, and assumes an audience is deaf or hearing impaired, cannot hear the audio and needs a text description to obtain access to information. Both captions and subtitles can be open or closed.

In the case of open captions/sub-titles, the text is shown on screen and the viewer does not have the option of turning them off. However, with closed captions/sub-titles, the viewer has the option to display the text or not.

It is wrong to assume that real time closed captioning is the ONLY option to be implemented, as real time open captions or open sub-titles has an important role to play depending on the circumstances. For example, closed captioning can only be switched off when the viewer has access to a decoder. If news on TV is broadcast to audiences who do not have access to decoders, real time open captions or open sub-titles are options to ensure accessibility. This is in line with the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Policies and Guidelines developed in South Africa.

Access to audiology & rehabilitation services

Many persons who are deaf or hearing impaired were deeply concerned regarding access to audiology and rehabilitation services during the Level 5 period of lockdown. According to complaints received, they felt to a large extent excluded from services and or essential support.

Access to online communication

Access to virtual meetings and/or informal discussions for deaf or hearing impaired persons (who use hearing technologies to communicate) is a major challenge.  The following factors may play a role in terms of effective participation in virtual and/or other discussions:

  1. the degree of hearing loss of those involved
  2. the functional impact of hearing loss on the person as well as,
  3. the type and effectiveness of the individuals hearing devices and/or the availability of assistive listening devices such as loop systems, audio streaming, headphones, etc.

The sensitivity amongst participants regarding the impact of hearing loss on the individual, specifically during interactive participation is of the utmost importance. Note that there are for example many deaf persons who cannot use any hearing technologies or assistive hearing devices. These individuals only have access to communication via speech- or lipreading, captions and/or sub-titles.  The provision of real time captions or subtitles during the meetings would therefore be ideal. I believe that IT-specialists worldwide will be motivated by COVID19 to improve and expand Voice Recognition Software for the benefit of millions of people with communication challenges.

The impact of COVID19 will still be with us for many months. Something positive that has emerged from #COVID19 and the lockdown is the realisation of how precious social interaction and effective communication are for humanity.

Please share your challenges, frustrations & successes in this regard with me?  I am available to communicate online via Skype, Zoom, SMS, Email ( or WhatsApp, Messenger, Twitter as well as Instagram.

Kind regards