Composing Captions:

A Starter Kit for Accessible Media

Chad Iwertz and Ruth Osorio
Sponsored by the Disability Studies Standing Group
blue circle with CC in orange

Invitation to Participate

This workshop is designed to engage teacher-scholars and students in making captions and image descriptions for multimodal content. By experimenting with captioning, participants will gain insight into why captions and descriptions matter—both as a form of access and a form of rhetoric. They will also get some practice making captions.

Why Caption?

How do I Caption?


Empowering strategies allow students to find their own voices, to discover the power of authenticity. At the same time, they enable individuals to find communion with others and to discover ways to act on their understanding. Empowering classrooms are places to practice visions of a feminist world, confronting differences to enrich all of us rather than to belittle some of us.

--Carolyn M. Shrewsbury, What Is Feminist Pedagogy?

Why Caption?

When Carolyn M. Shrewsbury imagined her vision of feminist pedagogy in 1997, she described a world of empowered classrooms, where students came together while embracing and celebrating their differences. Today, our writing classrooms are increasingly multimodal, with both required readings and assignments featuring visuals, sound, and text. As feminist instructors, then, we should ask: how can we incorporate multimodal learning into the writing classroom in a way that makes space for different ways of seeing and hearing? In other words, how can we make these robust, multimodal learning experiences more accessible?

To answer that, we begin by thinking who is in our classrooms. Here are some numbers:

These numbers demonstrate the prevalence of hearing and vision disabilities, and thus, should encourage teachers of writing to consider how making classrooms welcoming and inclusive to people with diverse sensory abilities is a pedagogically feminist move. Composing captions and image descriptions is one such way to do that. In addition to making space for Deaf and Blind ways of being in the classroom, captions and image descriptions also help people who are learning English, people who are viewing audio material in a noisy place, and people who have an easier time processing visual text. In other words, captions and image descriptions offer us a transformational tool to open our classrooms to diverse bodyminds.

In this section, we have embedded a short (thirteen second) clip from the film Psycho. In the clip, the protagonist of the movie has just stolen money from her employer and is driving away from the scene of the crime before she can be caught. We invite you to watch the video and write a description of the visual and/or audio material. Before you get started, some notes: For this exercise, we ask that you follow your instincts without concerning yourself with “doing it right.” Hence, we encourage you to experience the rhetorical work of captioning before reviewing the best practices and theoretical underpinnings of caption and image description writing, which is included below.

Also, there’s a lot of sensory information in the clip, both visual and aural. There are no “perfect captions,” so you don’t need to attempt to write down everything that happens in the video. In fact, even if you could, you probably shouldn’t because including everything would compromise the message and narrative of the clip. Instead, we are interested in learning what information you would include and what you would exclude. What information would you prioritize in explaining the scene to someone who will not access or process this specific piece of sensory information as you? We also recognize that some of us might not be able to see the clip or hear the audio, and so we invite you to caption in a way that values your bodymind. We want to stress that all captions and descriptions are valuable in this exercise, not just those from people who see and hear the clip.

So here’s the video. We encourage you to share your captions/descriptions as a comment on the video’s YouTube page here.

How Did Others Caption this Clip?

We showed this clip as part of a microworkshop at the Coalition’s Action Hour at CCCC 2016. At the workshop, we asked participants to caption or visually describe the clip—just like you have—and then we discussed the experience. It was fascinating! Some people focused on the visuals, painting a vivid picture of the character’s hand gripping the steering wheel. Others focused on describing the iconic score. Interestingly, no two participants wrote down the same description! Below are images of the participants’ notes followed by a transcription of the notes.

Image 1: Image description: messy, hand-written notes that reads:
She is driving with an intensely focused facial expression.
Camera starts from driver’s POV.
Switches to driver’s face.
Off screen dialogue.
Her eyebrows tighten as the off-screen dialogue happens.
Yes Mr. Leary.
// Caroline, still isn’t in?
// No, Mr. Leary.
But then she’s always a bit late on Mondays.
// Message me the minute she comes in.
(Tone and dialogue to show power relationship) (suspenseful, building music)

Image 2: Image description: handwritten notes that read:
Caroline? Is Marion in? (stern voice)
No, Mr. Laury. But then she’s always a bit late on Monday mornings.
Buzz me the minute she comes in.
Woman driving wide-eyed; serious face.

Image 3: Image description: handwritten notes that read: sharp violins play in background. woman driving car. BW scene. conversation between man and woman.
Yes, Mister Laurie. [female voice])
Carolyn, Marion still isn’t in? [male voice]
No, Mr. Laury but then she’s always a little late on Monday mornings. [female voice] [rapid music]
Buzz me the minute she comes in
[Mariam thinking]

Image 4: Image description: handwritten notes that read: [(Character) driving and thinking angrily]
[Tense, emotional string music]

Image 5: Image description: handwritten notes that read:
The car moves forward down a two-lane road.
Marion drives, hands tightly gripping the steering wheel,
Looking ahead with intense focus, she imagines a conversation with Mr. Laury….
The mood is tense, Marion is anxious, afraid.

Participants remarked that deciding which information to prioritize was challenging. We agree! We all experience visuals and sounds differently, so it’s hard to know what to include and what to leave out. And we’d argue that there’s no absolute right way to caption: that’s why this is a rhetorical act. Fortunately, some very smart people have written about the rhetoric of captions and offer us theoretical underpinnings and best practices.

So, How Do I Caption? Some Guidelines from Brueggemann, Zdenek, and Cachia

So, you’ve captioned, and you’ve seen how others captioned. What knowledge about captions, image descriptions, and rhetoric can we take away from this exercise? How do we caption effectively in our teaching and publications? To answer these important questions, we turn to the experts!

Brenda Jo Brueggemann reminds us that captioning is first and foremost rhetorical: a betweenity that must acknowledge the contexts, subjects, and objects of their use. Brueggemann also emphasizes captioning as a betweenity, both an artform and a skill, a skill that we can apply our creative liberty to. Similarly, Sean Zdenek argues, captioning is an art. Amanda Cachia further stress captions as an art form, a way toward but also a way of destabilizing access. Beyond translating across ways of being, captioning must move toward its own "aesthetic potential, care, sensitivity and intelligence." As a starting place, Zdenek outlines the following five steps we might keep in mind as we take up the rhetorical act of captioning:

  1. Captions should support the emotional arc of a text.
  2. A sound is significant if it contributes to the purpose of scene.
  3. Caption space is precious. It should never be wasted on superfluous sounds that may confuse viewers or diminish their sense of identification with the protagonist(s).
  4. Sounds in the background do not necessarily need to be captioned, even if they are loud.
  5. Every caption should honor and respect the narrative. While the narrative does not have one correct reading, it does have a sequence and arc that must be nourished.

We suggest that these practices can also be applied to image descriptions. Prioritize narrative and include the visual information that is crucial for supporting the story and/or argument.

Georgina Kleege and Patrick Anderson also highlight the importance for what they call participatory description: collective and organic “modes of audio description for visual images/film/video/performance, both as a mode of improving accessibility and as an intellectual/creative practice” (Kudlick & Schweik). Janine Butler has written about the rhetorical possibilities of captioning, pointing to American Sign Language music videos to illustrate how captions can be both functional and creative. As in our exercise here, these scholars showcase the rhetorical and aesthetic potential for captioning that values varied forms of participation in composing access through captions and image descriptions. They remind us that no one “right” way of composing captions or descriptions exists. Instead, captioning and description affords us a way of thinking about access as a form of inclusion rather than a form of correctness.

Disability rhetoric teacher-scholar-activists have been experimenting with captions and image descriptions for years now. Below is a video produced by Jay Dolmage, Margaret Price, Tara Wood, and Aimi Hamraie about sharing conference papers online. Pay attention to how the video incorporates both oral image descriptions and written captions, so that people with visual and hearing disabilities are valued and written into the video.

Thanks to the continuing efforts by disability activists within our field, captions are becoming the expectation rather than the exception. We hope that this trend continues—at our conferences, in our journals, and in our classrooms. We invite you to join us in transforming the academy into a more feminist space by acknowledging and celebrating difference through writing captions and image descriptions.

Tools for Captioning Audio and Images

So now that you’re ready to #CaptionTheWorld, you might be asking what tools you might need to help you continue on your way. Here is a short list of some guides and software that we are familiar with and recommend, though certainly the list is not exhaustive. YouTube is a great place to start: it is free and has some features to help the composing process easier, such as the auto-caption feature. Yes, that feature is often hilariously wrong, but it is also a first draft. Perhaps you prefer to revise using the free tools in YouTube or Vimeo, or perhaps you prefer to start from scratch with state-of-the-art captioning software like CaptionMaker. There is a wide range of tools out there to help you caption, tools as varied as the captions and descriptions we composed together for this remediation. We encourage you to find one that works best for you!

WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind: WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) features several guides on writing alt-text (image descriptions embedded in the source code of the photo that screenreaders can pick up), captions, and image descriptions.

WAVE WebAIM: With WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool), you can input a URL, and WAVE will point out accessibility issues with your website. For example, if an image lacks alt-text, WAVE will notify you and explain why this accessibility feature is important and how to fix it.

YouTube Subtitles & Closed Captions: The National Center on Disability and Access to Education created this guide to adding captions to YouTube videos.

Amara: The free captioning solution created by the Participatory Culture Foundation, Amara gives you the tools to both caption your own video and volunteer to participate in captioning other videos that currently lack captions globally.

MovieCaptioner: This captioning software offers a 14 day free trial.

CaptionMaker and MacCaption: Some of the most dynamic and flexible captioning software available, which will allow you to write and publish captions all in one program. Also the most expensive option of the list.


Brueggermann, Brenda Jo, Articulating Betweenity: Literacy, Language, Identity, and Technology in the Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Collection. Stories That Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. Eds. H. Lewis Ulman, Scott Lloyd DeWitt, & Cynthia L. Selfe. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2012. Web.

Why I Mind. Information Stories Project. 17 February 2011. YouTube.

Cachia, Amanda. Talking Blind: Disability, Access, and the Discursive Turn. Disability Studies Quarterly 33.3 (2013). Web.

Kudlick, Catherine & Susan Schweik.Collision and Collusion: Artists, Academics, and Activists in Dialogue with the University of California and Critical Disability Studies. Disability Studies Quarterly 34.2 (2014). Web.

Transcription // Translation. This Rhetorical Life. 23 April 2015. Podcast.

Zdenek, Sean.Which Sounds are Significant? Towards a Rhetoric of Closed Captioning. Disability Studies Quarterly 31.3 (2011). Web.

Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition