Empathy is the Latest in Tech: An Interview with Storm Smith and Rikki Poynter
8 minute read
September 9, 2020
For d/Deaf, hard of hearing, and DeafBlind people (DHHDB), technology is often upheld as the key to a more inclusive society. And while advances ranging from videophones to cochlear implants (CI) have certainly changed the ways DHHDB people interact with the hearing world and with one another, technology is far from the great equalizer it’s assumed to be. Viral videos of babies’ CI activations don’t show the hundreds of hours of intensive therapy a child must undergo to learn to decode the implant’s electronic impulses, or the language deprivation that can result if she doesn’t. Sign language gloves, reinvented annually by hearing science fair competitors, offer translations ranging from Mostly Wrong to Even More Wrong.
But for me, much more frustrating than the imperfections of new technology are the ways in which we are left out of the everyday essentials: internet, television, film. Our society increasingly works, socializes, entertains, and distributes essential information in these spaces, but routinely fails to make them accessible, leaving material uncaptioned and without image descriptions or transcripts. Today’s lack of accessibility isn’t the result of some complex computing problem, but of abled privilege. The technological resources are already available. More importantly, a few low-tech fixes–awareness, empathy, and allyship–are what most creators now need to open the world of their content to millions of DHHDB and disabled consumers.
But where I find anger and a little gloom, two Deaf activists and creatives–Storm Smith and Rikki Poynter–see an opening.
Smith, an art director at the prestigious BDDO advertising agency and a Pop Culture Collaborative Senior Fellow, makes inclusion not only an added feature of her work, but an integral part of the fabric of her storytelling; she also travels the country teaching others how to do the same. Poynter, a YouTube personality vlogging on topics ranging from makeup tips to FAQs about life as a deaf person, has pushed creators in her field to do more than add Google’s often nonsensical automated captions with her social media campaign #NoMoreCRAPtions
The following is a conversation between Storm, Rikki, and me, edited here for length and clarity.
Sara Nović: Can you start us off by saying a little bit about yourselves and describing your d/Deaf experience?
Storm Smith: I was born hearing and then became deaf when I was about two years old. I grew up in a mainstream school and identified myself as hard of hearing because I thought it was in a “safe zone” without having the more significant negative stigma of being Deaf.
I had a positive hybrid academic career experience, where I was mainstreamed at California State University Northridge, then later transferred to Gallaudet University for direct communication and the full-blown Deaf (multi)cultural experience. I learned about my identity when I went to Gallaudet, which helped me open up to other intersectional identities, like being Black Deaf Queer woman.
Gallaudet gave me the foundation to be a visual storyteller. My career took off when I was appointed by the university president to produce a presidential brand for internal campus and external communities. That work got noticed by BBDO Worldwide, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, and I became the first Deaf woman to have been recruited by BBDO as an Art Director, through the agency’s Creative Residency program.
Rikki Poynter: I’m disabled (deafness, chronic pain, and fatigue, though the latter is not officially diagnosed). We found out about the deafness when I was around 11; being born to someone who is also deaf, it is genetic, and it’s likely that I had some hearing loss before then. Now, at 28, I’ve little hearing left. I was mainstreamed before 11 and afterward, with no real access to ASL or deaf anything. It just seemed like it was all shoved under a rug, so I had no real [Deaf] identity. Even though I’ve been going “voice off” more in everyday life, I still have a lot of mainstream or “hearing headed” ways stuck in me.
Sara: I often think coming to understand my own identity might have happened earlier if I had had access to Deaf cultural role models. Can you talk a bit about the importance of representation, particularly in places like advertisements and on YouTube?
Rikki: I felt extremely lonely, ashamed, and depressed being deaf in a hearing world and not knowing or seeing anybody who was like me. Representation lets marginalized people not only see that they exist, first and foremost, but also that they do lots of things. Not just be the sad story in the film. Now we see characters kicking ass like in A Quiet Place and The Walking Dead. Deaf people making it in an apocalypse? Hell, yeah! If I had seen other deaf people when I was a child, I don’t think I would’ve been suffering through my school and young adult years so much, knowing that people like me existed and could do things. And I want to see that happen for others.
For things like YouTube: it’s so nice finding someone you can relate to, and I wanted to be that person for other mainstreamed deaf kids. I loved seeing signing deaf people on YouTube but I couldn’t relate, since I didn’t know any ASL then.
Sara: I’m still getting used to the idea that YouTube is where young people consume the majority of their video content. That makes internet accessibility all the more important.
Storm: When I was working on the action plan with my account director for Diversity Inclusion and Accessibility, I had to do research to justify the action steps we needed. One of the eye-opening findings was that 55% of people think there aren’t more people with physical disabilities in ads because they “make people uncomfortable.”
We have the responsibility to showcase diverse people with disabilities in a positive light, and not about their abilities in an inspiration porn sense. We are not entirely there yet–however, I do see progress. We have Lauren Ridloff in the upcoming Marvel film The Eternals; we have Nyle DiMarco as a firefighter in ABC’s Station 19, Natasha Ofili as the principal of the school in Netflix’s Politician, Shoshannah Stern as Dr. Lauren Riley in Grey’s Anatomy, and CJ Jones in the upcoming Avatar 2.
We need much more of this, and to have characters as leads in popular series and movies. This will generate opportunities for future generations to join the industry and produce the stories told by diverse disabled talents, rather than coming from the perspective of a non-disabled person.
We also need to explore more representation with intersectional identities and perspectives. One of the challenges is the position of power that executes storytelling in TV and film. We do not have enough people with disabilities in the writers room or at the table with the major decision-makers.
Sara: In terms of functional accessibility, do you see a change in the way people in the industry are thinking about integrating subtitles now that hearing users are also using viewing platforms like Instagram with the sound off? Or is it still a thing you need to push for a lot?
Storm: I’ve been presenting on the importance of accessibility and captioning on platforms for the past year. I see people finally open their eyes and realize it is good for business and good standard practice. And recognizing the numbers is great. They are continually leaving the money on the table, considering we are worth an approximately $21 billion market.
Sara: Can you say a little bit about your work with dynamic captions and why they’re more effective than the closed captions we currently have?
Storm: I don’t want to reveal too much about this particular project, [but essentially] Dynamic Subtitling will not only deliver visual scripted dialogues, but will identify sounds and emotions in precise directions in all scenes. It will allow viewers to pick up on the context of the narrative without hearing the sounds, by providing more visual information in different locations on the screen, rather than standard captions or subtitles on the bottom. It’ll be a whole new way to watch films.
Sara: Rikki, can you say a little about your #NoMoreCRAPtions social media campaign?
Rikki: First, it wasn’t a term coined by me! “Craptions” has been around for a long time. But in 2016, I wanted to try to make something big happen on YouTube with captions since I had been talking about it for a while. I thought if a large group of people got together at the same time to create something, it would have a higher chance of people seeing it.
The auto captions and even manmade captions, especially a long time ago, were bad and it was tiring to see. I would be watching a video about “concealers” but the captions would say “zebras.” Or some people would make a paragraph that covered half the video, and some would add trolling commentary. I wanted people to know about the importance of captions and doing them right.
Sara: I know you’ve been pressing YouTube not to get rid of the community-sourced caption system. Why do you think it’s important?
Rikki: Much of YouTube would not be captioned if we didn’t have community contribution. Yes, some big YouTubers don’t want to financially invest in professional captions, which can be frustrating, but when viewers offer to provide captions, it’s still good. Also, many disabled creators cannot afford to pay for professional captions or do it themselves, so having community contribution is a great help to disabled creators as well, deaf or otherwise.
Sara: The fact that people aren’t even willing to devote a few minutes, never mind funds, to accessibility is upsetting. Storm, when you do speaking engagements, how do you change their mindset so they don’t go back to doing the same old thing when you leave?
Storm: I often use three clips where one has no sound, one has malfunctioning captions, and one is fully accessible with audio and captions. They finally get it. I often get responses like, “We just forget, and that is wrong,” and “We don’t think about it. We have to do better.”
When they have that experience themselves in a room watching a clip with no sound and no captions, and my interpreter not interpreting it, I would imagine the silence coming from a video can be “uncomfortable,” but it is the “aha” moment for them. It’s always been one of my favorite parts of the presentation.
Rikki: I love doing the no sound and no captions challenge at events.
Sara: What kinds of tools do you think people in your industries need to make sure their materials are accessible? Is there actually a technology gap, or is it more lack of awareness?
Rikki: I think it’s more of an issue of awareness. If people are already making videos and other online content, they have the tools to make captions and image descriptions.
Storm: This is privilege, when you don’t have to think about it, while we people with disabilities that require accommodations have to.
This is why we need to continue the conversation, but we also have to show them what we need. Technology accommodations play a significant role for me. For example, my best interpreter lives in Orlando, Florida, and I am based in Los Angeles. She is able to join in virtually. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to perform my tasks and work efficiently, and that would create communication barriers.
I also use Just Big Text app to communicate with my colleagues if I need something quickly, and Convo video relay to make essential calls.
Rikki: The future of accessibility is getting better, little by little. Online content is captioned more often. Games like Fortnite have a visual wheel so you know what’s going on around you. There are more text/chat options and more subtitle and customization options.
The reality is that accessibility will never be a one size fits all or 100%. Even two deaf people side by side will have different needs. But the important thing is making an active effort to be as accessible as possible.
Sara: Let’s talk Deaf gain. How has being a d/Deaf person made you better creators?
Rikki: Being a deaf creator has made me have to think about how much more goes into my account, especially with accessibility. I’m able to reach more people because I have captions, sometimes I sign and have transcripts, and now for a year or so I’ve been even doing my own voiceovers (yes, this is hard when you’re deaf!) when I do ASL videos so Blind folks can enjoy them without having to go to a transcript if they’d prefer to listen. So even though my content may not be what most of the world wants to see or cares about, I at least have the possibility of being able to reach as many people as possible in case they do want that content.
Sara: Storm, I know you’ve talked in other places about the idea of “visual storytelling”–what does that mean to you?
Storm: As a storyteller with advocacy at my heart and core, I can connect different audiences through the power of film, campaigns, and videos. When I create stories, I visualize how the story would make the audience feel and how it would affect them. I love essential messages that make people think and influence their behavior for the better.
As a Deaf person, I am a keen visual learner. I can convey an idea via sign language and bring a concept to life. It is more than creating a story; it also helps me deliver creative solutions even during the workflow.
In the future, I want to continue to influence the implementation of accessibility into required practice. It should not be an add-on. I want to see more platforms with features including captions, transcripts, and audio descriptions for all.
We have responsibilities to continue to do better, especially if we want to reach the broader market. Three quarters of people with disabilities will leave a webpage if it is not accessible. That’s just one more missed opportunity.
Sara Nović is a Deaf writer and activist, and the author of Girl at War and America Is Immigrants. She has an MFA in Fiction and Literary Translation from Columbia University, and lives in Philadelphia. http://www.sara-novic.com/