A young man wearing headphones and glasses sits on a bus, looking at his smartphone. The bus is relatively empty, and sunlight is streaming in through the windows.

Video Captions and the Curb Cut Effect

Curb cut effect: what happens when something, designed with one demographic in mind, proves to benefit the larger population.


The first captioned media was likely the silent movie, popular in public theaters a century ago. At the time, there was no technology to integrate sound with video, so dialogue appeared as “intertitles”—written words alternating with corresponding visual scenes.

It was another half century before captioning found its way onto TV sets—and several more years before captions could be turned on and off. When the first closed-captioning technology (an adapter that attached to televisions) came on the market, it was advertised for hearing-impaired customers with the note, “Broadcasters have been reluctant to use [universally visible] captions because hearing viewers may find them distracting.”

How things change. Today, hearing viewers also want their videos with captions, closed or otherwise. A 2019 survey found that 80 percent of the population was “more likely to watch a video to completion if captions were available.”

A young woman with long hair, wearing a casual hoodie, sits in an airplane seat by the window. She holds a smartphone in one hand and looks out the window, which is brightly lit by sunlight.

There are at least three reasons.

Taking Video on the Road

On public transportation and in waiting rooms, reading to pass the time has always been a popular activity. With a smartphone or tablet, you can still read, but many people would rather watch a video. And it’s hard to watch and listen to a video in public. If you turn the volume high, you attract “get that noise out of my ears” glares; if you keep it low, you have to hold the phone against your ear, and then you can’t see the picture.

Headphones and earbuds eliminate that problem, but have their own disadvantages:

  • They’re one more thing to carry around.
  • They muffle sounds (like boarding calls) that you may need to hear.
  • Many people find them uncomfortable. Some people are even allergic to silicone, plastic, rubber, or other materials common in earbuds/headphones.

So for many, captions are the ideal way to watch videos in public. Captions don’t make any noise, don’t block outside sounds, and don’t add weight to your bag or pockets.

Keeping Up With the Program

For someone with an attention-deficit or auditory-processing disorder, following a program can be exhausting. In-person conversation can be slowed down or repeated, but video dialogue speeds along oblivious to whether the viewer’s brain can keep up.

Many people who struggle with spoken words can easily grasp the written version, which makes captions a natural assistive technology. Even people with typical audio processing abilities can struggle with complicated descriptions; and unlike digital sound, most captions are easy to pause for careful reading.

Can You Trust the Sound Anymore?

Ironically enough, TV captioning may owe its modern popularity to modern technology that has (in some ways at least) made actual sound worse instead of better. A 2023 article in The Guardian took a fascinating look at “why everyone is watching TV with subtitles on”:

  • Modern recording-studio technology picks up more sounds, in a wider range of frequencies. Transmitting the full spectrum can be more work than a home TV’s (or personal device’s) speakers were designed for—so the sound comes through garbled.
  • Even when the full sound gets through, its complexity can create an “echo” effect in the average TV room.
  • When actors rely on portable microphones during filming, they may make less effort to speak clearly.
  • And also, international streaming brings in accents that many viewers have difficulty understanding.

How to Best Use (and Not Use) Captions

Whatever your own comprehension issues, hearing ability, or preferred viewing environment, you have the right to choose and use captions as you prefer. Just a couple of “good manners and safety” caveats:

  • Do use captions (or another private-sound option) whenever there’s a chance of annoying others with sound or volume.
  • Don’t use captions or any other video element when driving—or any time when it’s essential to watch where you’re going. There are plenty of pure-audio alternatives!

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