F***ing Captions

I did a stand-up comedy gig this afternoon, the first since lockdown. It was online of course, but it was still great to be performing again. The show was with Abnormally Funny People, a collective of disabled comedians. Alongside me on the line up were Tanyalee Davis and Lost Voice Guy.

Simon Minty, who runs Abnormally Funny People and who’d organised the gig, had arranged for live captioning. He’d made sure that it would be provided by a human being, rather than using computer-generated captioning, something that’s becoming increasingly common.

Over the last few years voice recognition technology has come on by leaps and bounds, but my instinct was that it would still struggle to manage my tics, so it was great that we had someone doing it in person.

I was curious, though, about the automatic system, so during the tech run I tested it to see how it would manage. It kept up well and caught all my tics, though it didn’t always get them right!

One tic it definitely did hear correctly was “Fuck”, but much to my surprise it changed this to “F**k”.

I was shocked by how instantly annoyed and judged I felt by this. I’m certain that the programmers were well-intentioned when they made the decision to manage swearing in this way, but it was confronting to see my tics automatically censored.

Whenever I do interviews, I insist that my tics aren’t bleeped out. I don’t mind a warning being given or even having the sound dipped if necessary, but having my tics obliterated by bleeps or stars is a way of editing out my impairment.

The automatic captioning isn’t the only technology I’ve felt judged by recently. When I got a new phone, Siri refused any instruction that included an involuntary swear word. This had never been an issue previously and although Siri didn’t always understand what I was saying because of my tics, it had never before refused help just because of a swear word.

Of course, this isn’t the most significant barrier I face but it’s one of many examples of how normative assumptions get built into technology.

Feeling that my experiences or requirements have been overlooked again and again has a significant cumulative impact. It’s taken me years to feel proud of my body and brain exactly as they are.

Technology can help us do amazing things, but if there’s not a diversity of experiences amongst its designers, it will always cause problem. The starred-out letters today made me laugh out loud and I saw them for what they were, evidence of the narrow perspectives of the developers rather than any negative reflection on me.

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