Accessibility Isn’t Optional

City Council needs to caption its videos

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Illustration by Franky Olivares

Watching City Council meetings is a regular task for student journalists, and it can be a pain for those of us who have difficulty hearing. The city isn’t making it any easier.

The first time I watched archival videos as a reporter, I had to sift through the videos to find quotes from people who were opposed to the pending construction. While watching the video, I searched around for a captions tab, but never found  one. 

My bad hearing meant that I had to crank the volume up on my computer and I developed a pretty bad headache as a result. I remember thinking, if I was having this much trouble, how difficult must it be for hard of hearing and d/Deaf individuals? 

Different people identify differently with their hearing levels. Typically, those who use a lowercase “d” do not identify with Deaf culture. Conversely, those who use the uppercase “D” identify heavily with Deaf culture and are more likely to use sign language and other forms of communication. Those who use “hard of hearing” are on the deaf spectrum but do not identify as with deaf or Deaf. Every person’s relation to their hearing and identity is different so these labels are  fluid.

Captions are important. Without them, I have difficulty understanding what is going on — which is essential as a reporter. Without subtitles, captions or a transcript, videos are not accessible to those that are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. The city provides none of those options.

Transcriptions can be monotonous, but it’s not unreasonable to think City Council could donate resources or person power to the task. I, and several other reporters, have transcribed meetings numerous times. If we, full-time students and journalists at a weekly paper can do it, so can the city.

While the city does offer some accommodations to attendees of City Council meetings, hearing aids and priority seating are not enough to make City Council meetings fully accessible. Offering accommodations to only those physically able to attend gatherings makes a large assumption — that disabilities do not overlap.

City Council meetings facilitate a connection between the government and the people. In a system hindered by bureaucratic red tape, having open government meetings offers refreshing transparency. Or at least it should. 

Decisions made at these meetings can have wide-ranging ramifications. As the forefront of local politics, City Council discusses and decides on issues like the Highway 1 expansion, rent control or downtown developments in twice-monthly meetings.

Our democracy is reliant on access to participation for all — anything less is against our ideals. If only some are able to engage with City Council meetings, full participation is impossible.

Approximately 2-4 people out of every 1,000 in the U.S. are functionally deaf, according to Gallaudet University. In Santa Cruz, with a population of 65,000 people, that would equal about 130-260 people. This number rises significantly when you count everyone who has trouble hearing, like myself. About 37-140 people out of every 1,000 fall into this category. In Santa Cruz, that’s about 2,405 – 9,100 people — not a small amount. 

I’m not hard of hearing or d/Deaf but I certainly don’t have perfect hearing. My hearing isn’t much of an issue for me. I’m very privileged in my ability level. 

However, my normal hearing tendencies become a little harder to deal with when I’m watching videos. With outside noise, I usually have to put on captions to help me catch whatever I may miss, and I’m not alone. Several other people in the press center do as well.

Accessibility is vital. Without it, we are excluding people from the democratic  process. 

Allowing in-person accommodations is not enough, and posting them online is not enough. Our City Council needs to do  both.