Orange County cities systematically shut out hard of hearing residents from broadcasts of public meetings by failing to provide closed captioning in real time.

Unheard

A Voice of OC investigation working with Chapman University students exposes a systemic shutting out of deaf and hard of hearing people from live streamed public meetings. 

Only one of the 31 Orange County cities who responded to Voice of OC questions – Tustin – currently offers real time closed captioning –  typed by a person in real time during the online live stream of their public meetings. 

Tustin officials started offering closed captioning last April – months after the students first began making inquiries in the fall of 2020. 

“As a local governmental agency, it’s important to reach and engage with all of our residents. Closed captioning ensures effective communication and helps to remove access barriers,” said Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard in a statement.

County officials also provide captioning live on their online meeting livestream.

Yet when asked about closed captioning for meetings, city officials across Orange County cited an array of excuses to Voice of OC reporters and Chapman journalism students about why they refuse to turn on closed captioning for local residents. 

Most of Orange County’s biggest cities – Santa Ana, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Irvine – don’t offer residents accurate, realtime closed captioning of public meetings. 

In response to questions, some officials seem convinced that federal disability laws don’t apply to them in this instance. Others said it’s too expensive or they don’t get enough resident requests for the service. 

A half dozen cities use YouTube, which offers automated closed captioning but observers warn is not very accurate or consistent. 

Erica Yasuda, Tustin’s city clerk, said they pay the city vendor that provides services for public meetings, Granicus, about $20,000 a year for captioning services for all their public meetings, adding that the service is about 98% accurate.

Captioning in Tustin was implemented in April 2021.

The city also pays an additional $32,000 a year for other services from Granicus including live streaming, according to an emailed statement from Stephanie Najera, Tustin’s communications manager.

Granicus officials haven’t been able to respond to emailed questions from Voice of OC sent on March 7 regarding their services.

Letitia Clark, Tustin councilwoman who served as mayor last year, said in a phone interview that the implementation of closed captioning was important to increase accessibility and inclusivity and break down barriers blocking engagement.

“It’s a great step and progress in the right direction,” she said. “I’m hoping that this progress continues and it doesn’t stop with something that seems as simple as closed captioning.”

Clark said she advises other cities to look at the systems for their live streaming and see when the last time they were updated.

“Even though it may seem like it’s expensive, it’s much more expensive, in terms of not being able to have a fully engaged community,” she said. “ If they’re out of compliance, that can be a huge lawsuit, essentially.”

Clark added that it is more prudent to invest in resources that benefit the community as opposed to spending taxpayer dollars on legal fees.

Failing to Engage

Only six Orange County cities offer a limited form of closed captioning because they upload meetings to YouTube, which offers the service. But city officials and activists say the service is inaccurate – a flaw that can be particularly tricky when it comes to public meetings. 

A few cities, like La Palma and Stanton, that have used Zoom for their city council meetings in recent years were able to offer closed captioning because that service also includes a computer generated form of closed captioning that is better than YouTube but not 100% accurate. 

Two cities,  Laguna Woods and Buena Park, offer closed captioning on their TV broadcasts of their public meetings. 

Laguna Woods offers captioning in real time typed up by a person through Captioning Unlimited.

While meetings are not live streamed online they can be watched live on cable where the captioning services are provided. But it’s a service only available to people living in the gated community of Laguna Woods village, according to City Clerk Yolie Trippy.

According to an email from city staff, Laguna Woods pays $100 an hour for the captioning service.

The cities of San Juan Capistrano, Aliso Viejo and Fountain Valley say they can make accommodations for closed captioning upon request.

Robin Stieler, the clerk for the County’s Board of Supervisors said in an email the county provides captioning live on their online livestream meetings through a contract with Network Television Time, Inc.

The service, which is typed by a person, costs the county $225 an hour with a four hour minimum meaning they pay at least $900 every meeting for it, Stieler said. 

That leaves 17 cities that don’t offer any kind of closed captioning for residents who are hard of hearing and trying to monitor their local government deliberations. 

To see how your city does with closed captioning, click here

These leaders essentially make their deliberations, as well as scores of their residents, unheard. 

A stock image of Closed Captioning symbol. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The practice isn’t just bad policy but illegal, members of the deaf community say.

Activists call the practice a brazen skirting of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one that not only disenfranchises scores of residents, who over the past two years have struggled to monitor public agencies remotely through video of meetings.

It also leaves all these agencies vulnerable to lawsuits. 

It’s an issue that persists not just at city council meetings in OC but elsewhere in Southern California and the nation. 

“They need sensitivity training,” says Allen Wilson, a deaf Diamond Bar resident and GOP activist who monitors deliberations of a host of public agencies across the region. 

Wilson notes that for residents like him, it’s really tough to follow official deliberations without closed captioning. And he notes it’s not just deaf people that get shut out but anyone that is hard of hearing.

Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said federal laws like the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act have mandates for providing sign language interpreters and captioning.

Since they were passed decades ago, local governments have had to provide captioning and sign language interpreters for people who need it, he said.

“Every government entity, along with private entities, have been required to provide captioning and sign language interpreters if a deaf or hard of hearing person requires it.  Because of the ADA, state and local governments have had to provide captioning and sign language interpreters for the services they provide.”

Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf

While most cities in Orange County provide services during in person meetings such as sign language interpretation and hearing aids upon request, almost none offer any assistance for those watching the meetings remotely. 

A Voice of OC review found that 27 of at least 31 Orange County cities offered sign language interpreters, although in most cities sign language interpretation has to be asked for days in advance. 

Of those 31 cities, far fewer provided some form of closed captioning while meetings were live although in most of those cities the captions are computer generated which people in the deaf community say are not accurate.

Challenges of Accurate Captioning

Some cities upload their council meeting footage to YouTube, which automatically generates captions in real time. Other cities like Newport Beach and Fullerton upload the meeting video on YouTube following the meeting.

Santa Ana Spokesman Paul Eakins said while the city live streams their council meetings on YouTube — one of the few cities in the county to do so — the automatic captioning doesn’t always kick in, especially during long meetings.

“It isn’t consistent. The Clerk of the Council’s office is exploring options to improve captioning on videos and possibly live captioning for in-person meetings in the Council Chamber,” Eakins said in an email.

Irvine’s City Clerk Carl Peterson said problems with inaccuracy and unreliability are why the city is not using YouTube’s automatic closed captioning system.

“The system does not generally recognize proper names and places, which further leads to inaccuracies,” he said.

Irvine Public Information Officer Kristina Perrigoue however said in an email that the city is exploring live streaming meetings on YouTube and said the city has not received requests for captioning services.

Christian Vogler, a professor and Director of Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University – a university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington D.C. – said automated captions are not an appropriate accommodation.

“A lot of governments are trying to improve access for deaf and hard of hearing people, they’re doing so through ASL, American Sign Language interpreters,” he said. 

Is Sign Language Enough?

While hearing people imagine all deaf people know sign language – the truth is a majority of deaf people don’t, said Vogler. 

Vogler said only a fraction of people who are hard of hearing or deaf nationally  – 500,000-750,000 – use sign language.

Meanwhile, he notes there are 35-48 million people deaf or hard of hearing in the U.S.

“If you want to create an event fully accessible, then what should be done is to have a sign language interpreter and closed captioning (generated by a human) but unfortunately, a lot of people don’t realize that.”

Christian Vogler, a professor and Director of Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University

Vogler said there are also a lot more interpreters than there are people skilled enough to do captioning work – another reason why governments may be falling behind on offering closed captioning.

The best accommodation he said is offering both.

There are about 800,000 deaf and hard of hearing individuals residing in the Greater Los Angeles area and surrounding counties, according to the Orange County Deaf Equal Access Foundation.

The Need For Accessibility

Regional Director of the Orange County Deaf Equal Access Foundation Jacinto Contreras said to effectively communicate with everyone in the community closed captions need to be provided live and continuously at public meetings. 

“We all need the same access as hearing people,” he said. “Sometimes the government may have an interpreter on the screen and it’s important for all of us to get the same information at the same time as everyone else.”

Contreras said as a person who is Deaf, it is frustrating to try and engage in government when these services are not provided.

“I will not be able to get all of the information that is shared. Sometimes information is very important and I miss that and it could be life threatening…While they’re discussing things, I would not be able to put in my input If I didn’t have all the information.”

Jacinto Contreras, Regional Director of the Orange County Deaf Equal Access Foundation

Accessibility is not just an issue in Orange County.

In nearby Diamond Bar, Allen Wilson, a regular at city council meetings who wants to be involved in local issues, also finds himself frustrated by the lack of effort his city is making to provide access to people who are hard of hearing like himself.

“They should automatically provide closed captions,” he said. “Many times, I have to try to say ‘hey, there’s Deaf people, people with disabilities. They need sensitivity training in my opinion.”

Wilson said he feels like cities that don’t offer accommodations like closed captioning are violating federal laws and said services like that don’t only benefit the deaf.

“There are plenty of people, older people who are maybe hard of hearing because of their age, that could benefit from the captioning, younger people could benefit from the captioning,” he said. “They just need to figure out a way to do that.”

“They are violating the Americans With Disabilities Act,” Wilson added.

Vogler said in emergency situations accurate captioning is critical – not just for deaf people but for immigrants, people who are learning to speak English as well as people with an auditory processing disorder or cognitive disability.

He said there has always been a historic push for access within the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Protests at Gallaudet University in 1988 known as the Deaf President Now movement pushed for the university to select a deaf person to serve as the University’s president.

Vogler said the protests were a catalyst for the Americans with Disabilities Act that was passed in Congress in 1990 and governments should have been providing captioning and interpreting services since then but many unfortunately have ignored that law.

People are still fighting for access to this day, he said.

Are OC Cities in Compliance with Accessibility Laws?

Federal laws require local governments to make accessible the same services to individuals without disabilities to people with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all local and state governments to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity and reasonable accommodations to benefit from engaging in activities like voting or government meetings — regardless of the agency’s size or federal funding.

It also requires these government agencies to effectively communicate with people who have hearing, vision or speech disabilities.

Vogler said automated captions do not meet the “reasonable accommodation” standard nor is it effective communication because of the inaccuracies.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, government agencies are not required “to take actions that will result in undue financial or administrative burdens.”

Under The Rehabilitation Act, people with disabilities cannot be excluded from programs or “activities” that get federal financial assistance.

“Requirements common to these regulations include reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities; program accessibility; effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities,” reads a guide breaking down disability rights on the ADA government website.

That law also requires “federal electronic and informational technology to be accessible to people with disabilities” including members of the public.

There are different avenues for private citizens to challenge governments that don’t abide by these laws.

Residents can file an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. 

To learn how to file an ADA complaint click here.

Citizens can also legally challenge these governments in court, according to the law.

A Fight for Access Amplifies During the Pandemic

In 1880, the National Association of the Deaf was formed by leaders in the community and since then the group has worked to get federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 passed in order to create equal access nationwide, according to their website.

For a thorough timeline on the association’s history click here.

But decades after the federal laws were passed the association and people in the deaf community still find themselves fighting for access.

Access, while always necessary, is especially crucial in emergency situations like a global pandemic when circumstances, laws and protocols are changing day to day, they say.

It’s a fight that the association has taken up at the federal and state level.

“With the crisis brought on by COVID-19 and the lack of information accessible to us in the early days of the pandemic, the NAD and the deaf and hard of hearing community mobilized to persuade all 50 states’ governors to provide ASL interpreters,” Rosenblum said.

He said almost all state governors made the change except New York and Florida.

“For New York, litigation by Disability Rights New York was necessary to compel New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to comply. The NAD is working with Arnold & Porter and Disability Rights Florida to compel Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to consistently provide ASL interpreters,” Rosenblum said.

Even with compliance, he said not much thought is given to where the interpreter is placed to ensure people watching from home can see them sign.

Rosenblum said it took a lawsuit to get the Former President Donald Trump’s administration to provide sign language interpretation during White House COVID-19 press briefings.

“This was accomplished by an October 1st, 2020 Federal Court Order.  The Biden White House thereafter elevated accessibility by providing sign language interpreters in their daily press briefings, which has never been done by any previous presidential administration,” he said.

Rosenblum said litigation for access has focused on state legislatures.

“Lawsuits were filed against the legislatures of Oklahoma and Florida, leading to agreements to captioning access. There have been other efforts to compel other state legislatures to ensure captioning and/or ASL access,” he said in the email.

How Accessible is Your City Government?

Despite federal laws, accurate and reliable closed captioning for city council meetings in OC is almost non-existent amid a pandemic where public health officials have called on people to stay home over the last two years.

Contreras said when the Coronavirus pandemic first hit the county there was so much information provided about COVID on government websites but not much outreach to the deaf community.

“We’ve had to get the information then explain it on our blog, through sign language, translating it, trying to have others understand it so it’s just been frustrating,” he said.

Rosenblum said the right accommodations depend on the needs of the person and that city governments need to be prepared.

“It would be an act of discrimination if a deaf or hard of hearing person asks for access, and the city council tells that person to wait weeks or months before providing such access,” he said.

“The city councils must have agreements in place with real time captioning service providers and sign language interpreters so that such services are provided within a reasonable time upon request,” Rosenblum continued.

While the laws don’t dictate what captioning is required, Rosenblum said they have to be effective and understandable for deaf people.

Like others, Rosenblum said automated captioning has been terrible for years and only now getting more accurate but is usually incomprehensible.

“Councils that use [automated captioning] to save money are at risk of a lawsuit for failing to make their meetings accessible through accurate and comprehensible captioning,” he said. 

Real time captioning – captioning provided by a trained human – should be provided as standard practice, Rosenblum said.

“For live broadcasts online, local governments should provide real-time captioning as a standard operating procedure – rather than waiting for a request – to ensure full accessibility. This should be built into the local government’s streaming protocols.”

Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf

Some cities like Irvine and Aliso Viejo argue that closed captioning would be too expensive to install.

A Yorba Linda spokesperson said the city is exempt from offering closed captioning citing a section of the Federal Communications Commission rules allowing channels producing annual gross revenues under $3,000,000 not to caption videos.

Director of Public Policy Eric Harris at Disability Rights California and Attorney Andrew Rozynski of Eisenberg & Baum Law both refute the idea that providing closed captioning services would cause local governments financial burden.

“It is a matter of priorities for the local government that is at issue,” Harris said.

Contreras said cities should have been providing these services a long time ago and government finances is not an excuse to not provide them.

“It shouldn’t have to take someone like me or someone else to complain, it should have already been done to provide access, keeping us all safe and informed,” he said.

Vogler said the cost of hiring a real time human captioner is in the ballpark of $120-150 an hour in fees.

This leads to governments saying they can’t afford it, he said.

But for people who are deaf like Vogler, this is the cost of access.

“For a government who has a large operating budget to then balk back and say, “I’m sorry, we can’t afford captioning.’ Is inauthentic. That’s a false statement.”

Christian Vogler, a professor and Director of Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University

Wilson also said citizen involvement should not have a price.

“They have our tax money, they should be able to provide those services,” he said.

Other city officials said they don’t offer the service because they have no record or recollection of anyone ever having asked or complained like in Mission Viejo.

But some people who are hard of hearing like Wilson,  who regularly tracks many municipal meetings and public agencies across Orange County, say they shouldn’t have to ask for the service to be available.

“We pay our taxes, they have the technology. Again, this is the 21st century. Why should we have to request this kind of accommodation? Why should we need to reach out? It’s like going to mommy to ask for permission. It’s not fair.”

Allen Wilson, Diamond Bar Resident

Additionally, Eric Kaika, CEO of Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc., echoes Allen’s sentiments in an email, “the ‘provide upon request’ statement is a form of ableism.” 

“[Cities] are putting the burden on the deaf and hard of hearing community to continue to have to fight and ask for accommodations, when it should be given. Accessibility is a civil right,” she said.

In Laguna Beach, City Spokeswoman Cassie Walder said while there is no real time closed captioning, they are able to prove audio transcripts afterwards to people who want it.

Live Measures

While live closed captioning is not readily available in most cities, other measures like sign language interpretation or hearing aids and headsets are available.

However, to get sign language interpretation you have to ask two days in advance in most cities. 

Under California’s transparency laws, cities and other government agencies are only required to post their public agendas three days ahead of time, a standard almost every city in Orange County sticks to religiously although some post them further in advance. 

That leaves a narrow window for organizers and interested residents to get their requests in, assuming they know that the meeting is happening. 

La Habra requests people notify the city clerk four days in advance of the meeting should people require accommodations, according to an email from the city clerk’s office.

Vogler said the responsibility needs to fall on those organizing the meeting and they need to plan for access for everyone.

Some officials in cities like Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Westminster say they’ve rarely or almost never received requests for sign language interpreters.

Costa Mesa City Clerk Brenda Green said there are frequent requests for headphones for the hearing impaired, which they provide.

Cities Starting to Explore Closed Captioning

Some cities are starting to look into closed captioning services.

In Huntington Beach, while officials have have had concerns about cost in the past City Clerk Robin Estanislau said in an email the city has requested cost information for closed captioning from Granicus.

In Anaheim, City Spokesman Mike Lyster said the city is evaluating options for closed captioning for their meetings.

Time For Change

Vogler said there is no one size fits all solution for accessibility.

“It’s not as easy as plug and play. ‘I provided an interpreter and therefore access is in place.’ It’s a good first step but it is not access. It is not good enough,” he said, adding the same is true of providing captions but no interpreter.

“There are people with a wide range of disabilities that exist across the country, and we need to make sure that we’re fitting all of their needs.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.​​

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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