- TikTok's closed captions make the app more accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing users.
- Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have created their own thriving community.
- DeafTok creators explained to Insider why it means so much to them.
- For more stories, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
When Scarlet Watters, who is deaf, started making TikToks in March 2020, she was "terrified" at the prospect of creating content on a video-sharing platform that had not yet introduced closed captions.
At first, Watters posted videos of herself dancing, "since that's what everyone else was doing." But with lip-syncing videos being one of the most popular genres at the time, she decided to dip her toe into making "ASL covers" — using American Sign Language (ASL) to sign along to song lyrics while lip-syncing.
"A friend of mine made an ASL cover to one song and I was so fascinated by it, I thought I had to give it a try," Watters told Insider. "I had never done an ASL cover before, so it was all very new to me, but I picked it up quickly and it instantly became one of my favorite things to do."
From there, she said, she "blew up" and has since gained more than 5.2 million followers and 200 million likes across all of her videos.
Watters is one of many deaf or hard-of-hearing TikTok creators who self-identify with the subculture known as #DeafTok, which currently has 1.1 billion views and is flooded with videos of creators raising awareness of accessibility issues, sharing information about life as a deaf person, educating viewers on interacting with deaf people, and of course, posting ASL covers and other general TikTok content, like "get ready with me" videos.
TikTok has not always been welcoming to deaf or hard-of-hearing creators, but the crucial accessibility update of closed captions a year ago has helped the community to flourish. The videos have a generally positive response, with viewers often asking more questions in the comments.
Many creators share their experiences as part of the Deaf community and its language and culture. They will often use hashtags to indicate they identify as deaf or hard-of-hearing (#hoh), or a combination of hashtags — many hard-of-hearing people also identify as deaf, regardless of their level of hearing loss, and as members or allies of the Deaf community which in the US typically shares the use of ASL.
DeafTok gives creators a space to share their experiences in an inclusive and accepting environment, frequently going viral and allowing them to connect with other users.
Deaf people Insider interviewed said they were initially skeptical of joining TikTok, but a community formed even before it was accessible
"When I first joined TikTok, there were barely any deaf creators," Watters told Insider. "It was even harder trying to convince my deaf friends to join the app as they all believed it was for the hearing world." But, as time went on, when her friends saw how receptive people were to her content, they began to warm up to the app, despite it lacking the feature they needed.
"After seeing how open-minded the hearing community was to me, and open to learning about our culture, more people decided to join to help me spread awareness," she continued. "Next thing you know, little by little, we were getting more diverse content from deaf and hard-of-hearing people."
Rebecca Mingin, another deaf TikTok creator, joined the app in March 2020, "when it was less accessible." She told Insider she felt "left out" as it was hard for her to know what was being said in the videos she watched.
In May 2020, Mingin posted a TikTok introducing herself using British Sign Language (BSL). While her previous five videos — only one of which was about being deaf — had an average of around 7,200 views, this one comparatively blew up, gaining over 610,000 views.
A second iteration of this video, shared in November 2020, garnered 1.2 million views and, since then, Mingin has accumulated 768,000 followers and 22.5 million likes. One of Mingin's most viewed videos, with more than 9 million views, was a sarcastic response to a comment that asked if her throat hurt due to how she talks: "Really?" she said. "No, only my ears don't work. Nothing to do with my throat."
Watters told Insider she started making videos on an app that was, at the time, inaccessible to her because she wanted deaf viewers to have something to enjoy, but she can see why it resonated with non-deaf people too. "I think many people were curious about what it was like to be deaf and they finally had someone on the platform they were able to ask," she said.
When TikTok added closed captions to the app, some deaf users said it transformed their experience
TikTok introduced auto-captions in April 2021. The new feature gave creators the option to add automatically generated captions to their videos to make them more accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing users, and creators are able to edit the captions for accuracy.
Before auto-captions were added, it was rare for creators to manually add their own captions, but the feature has made it a much more common occurrence. The #cc hashtag, an abbreviation for "closed captions," currently has 5.8 billion views, with videos from all corners of the app utilising the feature.
Watters called the decision to introduce auto-captions "the best thing that has happened on the app for the deaf community," and "a step in the right direction to making social media more accessible."
DeafTok has since evolved from sign language to raising awareness about deaf culture
After she made her first ASL cover, Watters started making content about her experience within the deaf community, such as a video captioned "Deaf Ears in a Hearing World," which depicted a day in the life of a deaf person and received 33.5 million views. That's when she started to meet more deaf people on the app.
"It was crazy because I never knew how many people would actually be curious and willing to learn about the deaf community," Watters told Insider.
This is what Watters says she loves about creating videos raising awareness about deafness: that it brings people together.
"I felt that my 'Deaf Ears in a Hearing World' video opened a lot of people's eyes and it made them more willing to learn how to make communication easier between deaf and hard-of-hearing people and the hearing community," Watters said.
She thinks that a lot more deaf people are open to joining the app now that it's more accessible, especially when they come across videos from some of the creators who put in the work before the captions feature was introduced, as they have been able to build followings over time.
"Deaf TikTok can really bring us together." she said, explaining that now, deaf people can "finally have smooth conversations without any barriers, making each other's lives easier."