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HearSay Blog - Season 2, Episode 1: Broadcasting Accessibility with Larry Goldberg

Posted May 16, 2024


Posted May 16, 2024

Images of Larry Goldberg and Mike Paciello with HearSay text next to their pictures.
Images of Larry Goldberg and Mike Paciello with HearSay text next to their pictures.

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Larry Goldberg, former head of accessibility at Yahoo!, WGBH, NCAM, and Verizon provides an overview of the history of accessibility in the media industry. Learn about his role in creating closed captioning and how the innovation impacted media outlets.

Many people today use closed captions to watch a movie on a crowded train while commuting home for work or when they are in a room with others who are sleeping. While closed captions were invented so people with hearing impairments could enjoy television programming, the innovation they brought benefits many others—and often is a preferred viewing method. 

In our recent HearSay podcast, we brought on Larry Goldberg, who has over 30 years of experience in the accessibility industry, shares how innovation with closed captioning evolved over the years. As the former head of accessibility at the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), Larry brought closed captions to media outlets, including WGBH. His story highlights a key principle of building with accessibility in mind: When you build for people with disabilities, the innovation and solutions often create better experiences for other users, too. 

Here are some of the top takeaways from our conversation with Larry.

The Creation of Closed Captioning

Larry shares the history of closed captioning, describing the multiple forms the technology took on. Initially, in the 1970s, closed captioning was “burned into” TV shows — they were essentially subtitles users couldn’t turn off. While this helped people with hearing disabilities view programming, many users found the words distracting. While TV producers wanted a solution to the accessibility problem, they wanted a way to provide captions without distracting from the images or other users. 

In 1980, “some brilliant people at PBC and ABC” figured out they could inject data into TV signals, turn that data into words, and have a decoder display the words on the screen. Thus, closed captions were born. Said Larry, “That’s where closed captioning started and really took off. It gave users the choice [to use captions] and didn’t interfere with people’s enjoyment of TV.”

The optional approach of using captions we know today isn’t just beneficial for those with permanent disabilities — it also benefits those with temporary or situational disabilities. For example, how many times have you been in an environment where you either couldn’t use sound or couldn’t hear audio content? Closed captions enable those with situational disabilities to still interact with audio content, showcasing how creating solutions for accessibility creates better experiences for all users.

The Early Years of Accessibility

Closed captions allowed users with hearing impairments (including people who are deaf or hard of hearing) to enjoy television. But this was just the beginning of bringing accessibility to the media industry. 

Fast-forward a few years to when the web was in its infancy. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have just been introduced and approved by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Larry, who was working at WGBH at the time, was actively involved in helping create accessibility laws that would improve accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

One of these laws was the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). “I had a chance to write some of it, especially the media parts,” Larry said. “I was able to negotiate aspects of it and go to the White House to be there when it was signed. Stevie Wonder was there, Senator Markey, and so many others.”

With the creation of WCAG, the CVAA, and other accessibility laws, organizations recognized the need to create more accessible software. Larry was actively involved in helping several major corporations, including AOL and Verizon, enhance accessibility and “create a foundation of accessibility in these major corporations.”

AI in Accessibility

The creation of artificial intelligence (AI) has created both challenges and opportunities for accessibility. Larry described accessibility leaders’ reactions when the technology first came about and the urgency they felt in needing “to learn it and exploit it for good.” He continued by saying key players within the industry were able to get involved fairly quickly and have utilized the technology to further accessibility.

However, AI does pose challenges to accessibility, one being with prosthetics. “People with disabilities often have technology inside them,” Larry said. “They rely on it for prosthetics, for wayfinding. Let’s not make mistakes that could cause harm. Let’s do some really careful analytics.” He gave another example of not relying totally on AI to generate closed captions or alt text, as it's too easy for errors to occur due to noise, accents, or many other factors. 

Currently, Larry is working with many startups and businesses that want to leverage AI in accessibility initiatives to ensure it’s beneficial to the industry. “I wasn’t planning to make my life about AI,” Larry said. “But these startups have to, so I’m trying to become quite the expert on the field.”

Despite the unique challenges posed by AI, if used correctly, it could enable organizations to solve accessibility issues at scale. This is exactly what AudioEye is doing — embracing the technology to solve common accessibility issues while actively involving accessibility experts and members of the disability community in our testing processes. Balancing both emerging technologies and tried and true practices has enabled us to enhance accessibility and create a more accessible, inclusive digital experience for users.

Parting Words

For Larry, one of the most critical skills accessibility professionals can have in the field is resilience. “You will get knocked down over and over again, and maybe your bosses are going to say, ' Why are we bothering?’” He encourages individuals to keep going, to be resilient, and to find a way forward, as the work is “rewarding one way or another.”

Want to listen to the entire conversation with Larry? Check out the episode on YouTube, Spotify, or Apple Podcasts

And stay tuned for upcoming HearSay episodes!

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