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  • Writer's pictureLucy@LHTranslations

Why are subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing audiences so important?

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Ever been recommended a TV series by a friend, sat down to watch it, only to find there’s no way you can physically enjoy it? Well, this is all too common a problem for people with hearing loss.

Can’t see subtitles? You might as well be playing white noise…

Did you know that 11 million people in the UK have hearing loss? That equates to around 1 in 6 of us. And yet some broadcasters are still lagging behind in making their media accessible to this audience.

Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Are there subtitles?

For some people, subtitles might be a nuisance and an invasion of the image, but for others, they are absolutely necessary

Who is affected?

Accessibility to media may not be a problem that occurs to you if you are blessed with full sight and hearing capacities. However, deafness and hardness of hearing are by no means rare impairments, and thus, for many (roughly 11 million people), a lack of subtitles on screen excludes them from accessing or appreciating television content. Of the 11 million in the UK with hearing loss, around 50,000 are children1, half of whom are born hard of hearing (HoH), while the other half lose their hearing during childhood. At the opposite end of the scale, around 71% of people over the age of 70 have hearing loss.

Since, in the majority of cases, hearing loss is acquired later in life, the population of people who speak British Sign Language as their preferred language still remains relatively small, at roughly 145,0002. Furthermore, while the availability of subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) audiences remains low, the provision of signed programmes is staggeringly lower!

The Silent Child, 2017, Oscar winning short film about a profoundly deaf 4-year-old girl

Disability or inability to adapt to audiences?

As comedian and disability activist Jess Thom3 aptly explains: “Disability isn’t caused by people’s impairments – people are disabled by attitudes, structures, environments that don’t consider difference in how they are set up.” By not providing subtitles for all video content, we are therefore creating a hostile environment for those who, by no fault of their own, are physically unable to view media in the same way as those without physical impairments.

Jess Thom herself has Tourette’s syndrome, but that didn’t stop her giving a jaw-droppingly impressive performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Not I” monologue play in theatres around the UK. Through her own experience of exclusion from enjoying the dramatic arts, she thoughtfully chose to incorporate a British Sign Language interpreter into her show so that the non-hearing audience needn’t miss out. And while British Sign Language and signed material is even harder to find than subtitles, this inclusive approach is the direction all media should be shifting towards as the HoH audience continues to grow (expected to reach 15.6 million by 2035).

Surely you can just switch the subtitles on, though?

Well, you’d think it was that easy! Imagine lining up a series a friend has recommended to you, sitting down to watch it, only to find that you simply can’t hear the content and there are no subtitles available. Indeed, according to Action on Hearing Loss’s 2015 Progress on Pause5 report, ‘87% of people with hearing loss have started to watch a programme on-demand and found that it had no subtitles’. It should then come as no surprise that three quarters of hard of hearing audiences5 report being unsatisfied with their on-demand services because they can’t take full advantage of the service due to their hearing loss.

In an effort to combat this, (after much campaigning) the British government amended the Digital Economy Act in 2017 to make on-demand content more accessible to people with hearing loss6. However, this piece of primary legislation only really states that something should be done to improve the situation but doesn’t actually dictate how; a secondary legislation is required for this. That said, communications regulator Ofcom has recommended that 80% of on-demand content be subtitled within four years of said secondary legislation being created, so it’s just a matter of time! If you’re considering a career in subtitling, start now!

BBC iPlayer provides subtitles for most of its content, as seen here on ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet – Europe’

In this vein, some companies are setting a positive example, such as the BBC. Having provided the first non-live subtitled programme on TV back in 1979 (Quietly in Switzerland) and first live subtitled show (Blue Peter) in 1984, the BBC have shown themselves to be historic trailblazers in improving accessibility standards (BBC One achieved 99.9% of its 100% on-demand subtitling provision quota in 2019)7. Meanwhile, CBS Reality, a potentially entertaining channel which broadcasts shows such as Judge Judy and Cold Blood, only met 67.9% of their 47.8% target for providing SDH.

Even Judge Judy finds herself on a channel with relatively low subtitle provision

Therefore, while amazing progress has been made in the field, there is still much work to be done and gaps to be filled. According to Ofcom, who have now taken over from the former Authority for Television on Demand, only just over half of On-Demand Programme Services (streaming platforms) offered subtitles on at least one of their services in the first half of 2019. If Cisco’s predictions of video accounting for 82% of internet traffic by 20228 are to be believed, then subtitles have never been more important!

So, if you’re considering a career in subtitling, go for it! There is plenty of work to be done and ever-increasing demand, both from the audience and the regulators. Go forth and be part of the light at the end of the tunnel!

If you want to know how to get into subtitling, I’ll cover the topic in my next blog. Stay tuned and follow the blog for updates!

  1. – Facts and figures, Action on Hearing Loss

  2. – What is British Sign Language?

  3. “Me My Mouth and I” film by Touretteshero, 2018

  4. – StageTEXT Statistics on deafness

  5. – Progress on Pause Report, Spelling out the case for subtitles on on-demand services, Action on Hearing Loss

  6. – Digital Economy Act 2017

  7. – Television and on-demand programme services: Access services report – January to July 2019

  8. – Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Trends, 2017–2022 White Paper

Written by Lucy Harford, Translator and Subtitler based in London. Website:

LH Translations | French-English translation | Subtitling | London

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