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Perspective: Why I'm not entirely gung-ho about voice transcription

My last name seems to be giving Zoom some trouble, specifically its automated closed captioning feature. When I introduce myself to my students and pronounce my last name “Gunkel,” the algorithm renders it “Gung-ho.” So to some of my students, I am now “Professor David Gung-ho.”

It’s a rather funny error and we can all have a laugh at the mistake. But it also reveals something important. Our new digital tools are both a blessing and a curse for accessibility. If you are able to hear my voice right now, this subject may have never registered for you. And for good reasons, we take these things for granted. But for someone who is not able to hear or has difficulty hearing, it’s a different story.

Zoom and other remote conferencing applications with automated closed captioning capabilities help our students access course content, and these tools have been celebrated for supporting accessibility. But the voice recognition capabilities of these systems are limited. They have difficulties with different accents, proper names, and specialized vocabularies. Consequently, automated closed captioning, despite its advantages, could also be a significant problem -- a problem that is unfortunately going to be passed on to others who need to rely on these systems in ways that many of us never need to worry about.

All of this means that we cannot take hearing for granted AND we cannot assume that our digital tools are going to take care of this for us. Accessibility is still our responsibility.

I’m David Gung-ho, and that’s my perspective.

Northern Illinois University professor and author