Striving for inclusive communication and employment with social enterprise CaptionCube
Conversations | By Loi Yi Xi, Creative Editor
In today’s digital world, captions or translated subtitles are a common feature of the media we consume. Not only do subtitles allow for a better understanding of dialogues in different languages, they are also essential for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Within Singapore’s multilingual landscape, subtitles are an integral part of local television - and if you are a consumer of local television, you may have noticed the name “CaptionCube” in the end credits of the programmes.
Founded in 2015 by Li Kunqi, CaptionCube is a social enterprise that provides video captioning, subtitling, transcription and translation services to the media, education and government sectors.
As a homegrown company with a community of local talents, they have since built an expertise in local content which typically includes working with Singlish, Chinese dialects and the Malay language. Furthermore, CaptionCube is a member of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE), and provides remote working opportunities to persons with physical disabilities and autism.
Making everyday communication more accessible
CaptionCube was founded with the intention “to make everyday communication more accessible for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community”.
Aiming to learn more about the social sector, Kunqi was inspired by a workshop that she had attended which taught participants about the problems faced by persons with disabilities.
“What I thought was a 2-day workshop ended up as a 6-month project, and I wanted to give this potential solution a fighting chance,” says Kunqi.
CaptionCube was thus established to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in online learning, seminars or even in theatres, through captions for videos and live events.
Given the rising popularity of e-learning videos, CaptionCube had initially sought to provide captions specifically for the education sector for deaf and hard-of-hearing learners.
However, the company found it challenging to raise awareness on the importance of captions to promote content accessibility. Kunqi notes that “for some of us who do not require captions in our daily communications or media consumption, it may not be intuitive for us to appreciate the impact a good set of captions can have for individuals who rely on them”.
Recognising that they were unable to build a sustainable business model within the education sector, CaptionCube then pivoted towards the broadcasting sector, an industry that is already well-acquainted with the value of having good quality captions and subtitles.
Since then, CaptionCube has grown and established itself with the help and support of the start-up and social enterprise ecosystem, namely Singtel, DBS Foundation, raiSE, Enterprise Singapore and ACE. Kunqi also credits Mediacorp - Singapore’s largest content creator and national media network - as a major supporter of their cause over the years and one of their biggest clients.
Working towards an inclusive workplace
As a social enterprise, CaptionCube also champions an inclusive employment culture.
To date, it has supported close to 20 persons with physical disabilities and autism by offering them remote working opportunities within the company.
In terms of social impact, the total income earned by employees with disabilities has grown 10 times in the company since 2017. More recently in 2019, they contributed 12.4% of CaptionCube’s total revenue, according to Kunqi.
The decision to provide remote opportunities stemmed from the challenges that persons with disabilities and autism face in a typical workplace, where Kunqi recognised that a 9-to-5 workday may be unsuitable for some of them.
For example, persons with physical disabilities may face a lack of accessible routes to the office, experience difficulties navigating public transport during peak hours, or bear the higher costs of arranging for regular private transport. At the office, finding wheelchair-friendly washrooms nearby that are functioning and clean could be another source of stress.
And for some with autism, loud noises or distractions in the office environment could be stressful or disruptive to productivity. Hence, working from home may be the better alternative for such persons.
These challenges, however, may be left uncommunicated with their employers due to the fear of losing their hard-earned job opportunities.
In response, Kunqi strives to mitigate these challenges for her employees from their very first day at work. She had observed that for most persons with disabilities employed at CaptionCube, this was their first job after a long period of searching. Knowing that her employees might be wary of communicating their workplace concerns to her, she tries to keep the barriers to entry as low as possible.
This is done through offering bite-sized and remote assignments on a freelance basis. To cater to individuals with different strengths and levels of work stamina, CaptionCube has specific skills-based or language-based assignments. Freelancers can then work from home at their own pace as long as they meet the deadline of the assignment.
More importantly, Kunqi has noticed that simply getting started on assignments builds greater confidence in their freelancers.
She notes that the opportunity to work together with others in an organisation where they feel safe from judgement contributes greatly to their self-esteem. As they work on the assignments, not only do they gain experience and financial independence, but they also build confidence because of that.
Depending on their work performance and interest, there will be opportunities for freelancers to move on to part-time or full-time arrangements in CaptionCube, Kunqi says. She also affirms that with strong work performance and attitude, the freelancers will be eligible for salary raises and higher job entitlements too.
Advancing media inclusivity in Singapore
As COVID-19 has accelerated the rate of digital transformation around the world, the need for subtitles and translation services has grown in tandem as well.
Kunqi observes that the pandemic has “shone a light on the need for access and translation services” to quickly and accurately transmit information to the public.
The company has thus been ramping up efforts to provide live captioning for online events, and is also working on continuously evolving their work processes while providing more work opportunities for persons with disabilities.
To improve the work that they do, Kunqi hopes to connect with more experts in speech-to-text technology or the translation industry in the future. She also encourages students who are interested in CaptionCube and captioning to join as freelancers or interns and contribute to the scene.
In the meantime, the social enterprise has shown that subtitles continue to play an integral role in promoting media inclusivity. Indeed, when South Korean film director Bong Joon Ho accepted the Best International Feature Film for Parasite at the Oscars, he famously said, “once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. Such a statement portrays the necessity of subtitles, which are essential for films of different languages or dialects to reach a wider net of audiences.
While the decision to watch a show with or without subtitles is based on personal preference for some, it may not be the case for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Undeniably, the merely ‘1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles’ has enabled audiences to step over any pre-existing language and audio barrier, benefiting the wider audience community.
About the interviewee:
Ms Li Kunqi, the founder of CaptionCube, has worked across engineering, coaching to business development. She started her career as an engineer in the aerospace sector after graduating from NUS. Since uncovering the need for captions and their benefits in education and communication, she co-founded CaptionCube to provide captioning, transcription and multimedia support services.