YouTube is ending its community captions feature and deaf creators aren’t happy about it

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YouTube plans to discontinue its community captions feature, which allowed viewers to add subtitles to videos, because it was “rarely used and had problems with spam/abuse,” the company announced. It says it’s removing the captions and will “focus on other creator tools.” The feature will be removed as of September 28th. “You can still use your own captions, automatic captions and third-party tools and services,” YouTube said in an update on its help page.

But deaf and hard-of-hearing creators say removing the community captions feature will stifle accessibility, and they want to see the company try to fix the issues with volunteer-created captions, rather than doing away with them entirely. Deaf YouTuber Rikki Poynter said on her channel in May that community captions were an “accessibility tool that not only allowed deaf and hard of hearing people to watch videos with captions, but allowed creators that could not afford to financially invest in captions.”

She tweeted Thursday that she was disappointed with YouTube’s decision:

I told them for a full freakin’ hour why we need community contribution. Not just for deaf people so more channels will have captions, but for disabled creators who can’t manually do them or have the income to pay for them: which is most of us. They do not care about us.

— Rikki Poynter ‍♀️ (@rikkipoynter) July 31, 2020

YouTuber JT, whose channel has more than 550,000 subscribers, highlighted the downside of the community captions feature last year, showing how viewers were adding abusive comments to videos by popular creators.

But many creators say they relied on the captions not only to better reach deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, but to help translate their videos into other languages, giving them a larger audience.

It’s a shame that YouTube are taking away community-made subtitles. It isn’t financially or practically viable for me to have my videos subtitled in languages other than English I’m afraid, I’ve relied on kind volunteers to do foreign language subs until now

— Philosophy Tube (@PhilosophyTube) July 30, 2020

UK journalist Liam O’Dell, who first reported YouTube’s decision, says many creators in the deaf community considered community captions a poorly promoted feature, made more complicated by the decision last August to require creators to manually approve the captions. Several users have lamented that YouTube did not advertise the feature well or make it prominent enough in the user interface to catch on.

YouTube said in an email to The Verge on Friday it would provide creators who have used the community contribution feature on at least three videos in the past 60 days a free six-month subscription to subtitling service Amara. Eligible creators will be notified in the coming weeks. Even if creators don’t qualify for the deal, they can still use Amara’s tools, which include a free subtitle editor, according to YouTube.

O’Dell notes that the company has been hinting that the feature is going away for a while; YouTube product manager James Dillard said in a video on the Creator Insider channel in April that “ultimately comes down to not that many creators are ultimately using it.”

A petition calling on Google to reverse the decision has garnered more than 49,000 signatures as of Friday morning. “Removing community captions locks so many viewers out of the experience,” petitioner Emma Wolfe wrote.

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