President Ramaphosa on TV with a sign language interpreter on the screen.

Disability organisation takes ICASA to court over captioning

25 October 2021 | Advocacy

Most people with hearing loss don't understand Sign Language. Along with them, many autists also benefit from captioning. The NCPD is taking ICASA (South Africa's broadcasting regulator) to the High Court over its failure to provide a fair Code on captioning.

When Sign Language interpreters are not enough

In South Africa, we’re accustomed to seeing a Sign Language interpreter whenever President Ramaphosa has something important to say. Most people who use South African Sign Language (SASL) have been Deaf from a young age. But what if you lose your hearing because of gunshots, an explosion or industrial noise? 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 and 2 in 3 over the age of 70 also have hearing loss. These are just a few examples of people who can’t hear a video or TV broadcast well enough to understand what’s going on—but who also don’t use or understand Sign Language.

The vast majority of people with hearing loss do not use or understand Sign Language.

Trying to get the government to do the right thing

For many years, the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) has lobbied for news bulletins and public service announcements to be made accessible for people with hearing loss. They have formally asked ICASA for Open Captions (OC) or Open Subtitles. (ICASA is the regulatory body for the broadcasting industry in South Africa.)

ICASA’s response isn’t helpful

Early in 2021, ICASA issued a Code requiring the broadcasting industry to use Closed Captioning (CC) or Closed Sub-titles. But both of these require technology similar to a TV decoder or the internet—a solution which is not affordable to the majority of South Africans!

What should ICASA have done instead? Open Captioning (OC) or Open Sub-titles, which do not require additional technology and are easily accessible to the public, could have been made compulsory in the regulations, as per the NCPD’s request. But this hasn’t happened, so poor households will remain without access to live Captioning or Subtitles on TV. They still won’t be able to access breaking news and important public announcements.

Off to the High Court!

The NCPD contends that this is impermissible discrimination. It has launched legal proceedings to have the 9 April 2021 Code reviewed and set aside. The application was served by the Sheriff of the Court to ICASA on 6 October 2021.

Autism, captioning and signed languages

Can autistic people use South African Sign Language (SASL) and other signed languages?

It depends. In South Africa, some nonspeaking autistic people who are able to hear, are taught Makaton, a simplified signed language. The local version of Makaton includes some SASL signs. Some autistic people may also learn regular SASL. However, most nonspeaking autistic people have a problem getting their bodies to execute the instructions of their mind. This makes complicated movements and facial expressions impossible, so they cannot use signed languages. They may even struggle to produce the appropriate Makaton movements, as their bodies “do their own thing”. Communication methods that incorporate motor skills training are helpful for many nonspeaking autistic people. More about this

Are there people who are born both autisic and Deaf?


Why do some autistic people like captions even if they can hear?

Some autistic people have auditory processing problems and other receptive language problems. This means that although they can hear, they may not be able to understand the words well, or there may be a delay in interpreting the meaning of sounds. Captioning helps, because it allows them to read instead of having to interprete the meaning of sounds.

Many autistic people are also hypersensitive. The reasons for this can vary, and can include hypokalaemia, brainstem injuries related to connective tissue disorders, and other factors. Being bombarded by simultaneous visual information and sound can be distressing. Turning off painful sounds and relying on text can help. Many autistic people watch videos with the sound turned off.

For some autistic people, these problems are not constant; they come and go. These problems affect some non-autistic people too.

Clearly, captioning doesn’t only benefit people who hear very little; it also benefits people who hear too much, and those who hear, but who can’t make sense of what they are hearing.

Are the Autistic Strategies Network videos captioned?

Our older videos do not contain captions or subtitles. We have started incorporating captions in some of our newer YouTube videos, and will to continue doing this in future. Working with Communication First, we contributed to the making of LISTEN, a short documentary in which nonspeaking autistic people talk about representation. The film contains captions, and a transcript is also provided. There are also additional versions with subtitles in various languages.

For online meetings where captioning is required, we use Google Meet rather than Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams, because even with all the inaccuracies, the live captioning is still better in Meet than in the other platforms.

Information for this article was provided by Fanie du Toit (Senior Specialist: Hearing Impairment and Deaf Affairs at the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities) and Tania Melnyczuk (Collaboration Director: Autistic Strategies Network).