April 2023
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Jon Henner, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC, USA

In February of 2023, a Puerto Rican rapper named Bad Bunny both spoke and sang at the CBS Grammy Awards show. The captioning for the Spanish speaking read [Speaking non-English] and for the singing, [Singing non-English]. Reactions from linguistic and social justice communities were swift. Many of the responses on social media were similar to this tweet shown in Figure 1 from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice where the jokes were focused on the English/Not-English dichotomy. In response to the situation, CBS/Paramount went back and provided appropriate Spanish subtitles, and hundreds of linguistics professors screen capped the subtitles for future courses. The controversy, like many, was quickly left behind in social discourses.

Figure 1: A screen cap of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice twitter account. @LatinaInstitute. [screaming about abortion rights in non-english]. 10:12 AM . Feb 7, 2023, 6,224 Views. 25 Retweets. 1 Quote Tweet. 123 Likes.

For deaf and disabled people, the controversy about [Speaking non-English] was just another in a long history of struggles for access to video-based media both on television and elsewhere. Not until 2010 did the Federal Government of the United States require that redistributors (e.g. Netflix) caption their content (Zdenek, 2011). Although subtitles and captioning technically refer to two different mechanisms of access, in this article, we use them interchangeably. Given the limitations of the 21st Century Telecommunications and Video Accessibility Act and the expense in both time and money of creating captions, most online media was still not captioned even after the law was passed. About the same time the new online captioning law passed, YouTube premiered automated captions (themadprogramer, 2020). By 2019, the state of YouTube automated captioning was so bad that it prompted an Atlantic feature on the topic, and a No More Craptions campaign by noted deaf activists like Rikki Poynter (Besner, 2019). The challenge with the captioning is that YouTube could not decide for whom the captioning services were: the content producers, deaf and disabled people, or international audiences. YouTube’s inability to decide for whom captions were for created controversy when they began auto-censoring cuss words in their auto-captioning in response to their software falsely transliterating racially triggering words into the captions (O’Dell, 2020). Protests by the deaf and disabled communities failed to change this policy.

In spite of the law, not everything is required to be captioned. Music, for example, is not required to be captioned under the 2010 law. Following a 1992 lawsuit against Disney, studios are required to pay additional for captioning songs (Stanton, 2015). Accordingly, most studios choose not to caption songs when possible, in spite of multiple lawsuits including one filed most recently in 2015. Captioners are also not required to caption spoken languages other than the language of distribution. This is evident in Figure 2.

Figure 2 is a small screen cap from the recent Dreamworks movie, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. Puss in Boots is a spin off character from Dreamwork’s Shrek series. Puss is a cat voiced by Antonio Banderas, based in both Perrault’s 17th century European fairy tale about a cat who wears boots and helps the youngest son of a miller, and Zorro, an early 20th century pulp fiction hero based in Spanish California. Puss, as a Spanaird, often speaks Spanish instead of English. The captioning, rather than showing the Spanish language, reads “speaks in Spanish.”

Figure 2: A screencap of captions from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. (speaks in Spanish). Start digging.

The point of this is that Captioning has always been a political movement fraught with issues about accessibility, target audience, access friction with hearing people who are distracted by text on the screen (which is why open captioned movies basically do not exist), cost to implement, and yes, raciolinguistics. [Speaking in Non-English] was only one small incident in a long history of incidents, yet it appeared to seize the attention of those attuned to linguistic justice in a way that [speaks in Spanish] does not. The why is important.

[Speaking non-English] was a nexus of racism and ableism and a larger representation of the struggle of Captioning as an access means, particularly access for whom. A recent Preply survey of 1,200 Americans indicated that half of them watch captioned shows most of the time (Zajechowski, 2023). Gen Z respondents, which covers people born roughly between 1997 and 2013, responded that 70% of them prefer to watch captioned shows. Given that the majority of users of captions are hearing, and likely international viewers, captions are probably seen as not about access needs for deaf and disabled viewers but about language cueing. Hearing people do not generally need spoken language transliterated for them. They mostly need language cues. For them [speaks in Spanish] may not be problematic because it either cues them to listen for the Spanish, or it helps them realize that they don’t speak the language and can ignore it. [speaking in Non-English] is different for them because it sets up the spoken language as inferior to English.

For deaf and disabled viewers, both [speaking non-English] and [speaks in Spanish] are extremely problematic. First, it makes the assumption that deaf and disabled people do not read languages other than the majority spoken and written language of their communities. Yet, in the UK, at least 13% of deaf people speak a language other than English (Wright et al., 2023). In the United States, statistics on that are harder to come by, but Cannon et al. (2016) estimate up to a third of deaf students come from homes where English or ASL is not the primary language of the home. However, like Henner & Robinson (2023) point out, the only language that has value in deaf education is the spoken and written language of the community, which in the UK and the US is English. Moving towards justice requires that deaf and disabled children be given access to languages other than the primary spoken and written language of the communities. Ensuring that they have access to accurate captions of all spoken languages is therefore a disability rights issue.

Zdenek (2011) writes, “If we wish to provide robust accounts of multimodal composition, we need to inform our understanding of sound with an accessibility-infused sensitivity to the broader questions about sound, writing, and rhetoric…”. What is “accessibility-infused sensitivity” in this context? Kicking up a fuss about [speaks in non-English] but not [speaks in Spanish] of accessibility-infused insensitivity. Neither method of captioning is accessible for deaf and disabled viewers. The latter way of transcribing spoken Spanish is sensitive, but not accessible. The purpose of this article was to highlight what happens when people forget disability issues when working against raciolinguistic injustice. Raciolinguistic justice cannot be achieved without including disabled people in the advocacy.


Besner, L. (2019, August 19). When is a caption close enough? Retrieved 2/21/203 from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/08/youtube-captions/595831/

Henner, J., & Robinson, O. (2023). Crip Linguistics Goes to School. Languages, 8(1), 48. https://doi.org/10.3390/languages8010048

O’Dell, L. (2020, September 19). New YouTube automatic captions setting criticised by deaf campaigners. Retrieved 2/21/2023 from https://liamodell.com/2020/09/19/new-youtube-automatic-captions-setting-criticised-by-deaf-campaigners-community-captions-twitter-petition-rikki-poynter-creator-insider/

Staton, J. (2015). [SONG ENDS] - Why movie and television producers should stop using copyright as an excuse not to caption song lyrics. UCLA Entertainment and Law Review, 22 (2). https://doi.org/10.5070/LR8222027684

themadprogrammer. (2020, September 12). Scaling the waterfall, captions for all: YouTube CC History pt. 3. Retrieved 2/21/2023 from https://datahorde.org/a-history-of-youtubes-closed-captions-part-iii-scaling-the-waterfall/

Wright, E., Stojanovik, V., & Serratrice, L. (2023). Deaf children with spoken language bilingualism: Professional guidance to parents. Deafness & Education International, 25(1), 21–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/14643154.2022.2062096

Zajechowski, M. (2022). Survey: Why America is obsessed with subtitles. Retrieved 2/21/2023 from https://preply.com/en/blog/americas-subtitles-use/.

Zdenek, S. (2011). Which sounds are significant? Towards a rhetoric of closed captioning. Disability Studies Quarterly, 31(3).

Jon Henner is an associate professor in the Interpreting, Deaf Education, and Advocacy Services concentration in the Specialized Education Services department at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He likes cats.
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