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A New Civil Right: Telecommunications Equality for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans

Karen Peltz Strauss

Chapter Nine
Captioning is Launched

There’s the notion that TV is a visual medium. Try watching TV sometime with the sound off. . . . I promise you, you will soon learn that it’s not very visual. It’s really a sound-based medium with pretty pictures to make it more effective. Without the pictures it can succeed. Without the sound it can’t. —I. King Jordan

Deaf and hard of hearing people enjoyed going to the movies in the early 1900s, when silent films were shown on the big screen. But in 1927, the arrival of “talkies,” ended this common pastime. Twenty years passed before Emerson Romero, the deaf brother of actor Caesar Romero, attempted to restore the access that had been lost, by splicing subtitles between the frames of new films.1 Soon after this (in 1949), a Belgium company developed a captioning technique that succeeded in etching captions right onto the film’s finished print.

Back in America, Edmund Burke Boatner, the superintendent of the American School for the Deaf, and Dr. Clarence D. O’Connor, the superintendent of the New York Lexington School for the Deaf, used the Belgium technique to launch Captioned Films for the Deaf, a small nonprofit enterprise supported with start-up funds from the Junior League of Hartford, Connecticut.[*] From 1949 to 1958, their venture captioned and distributed Hollywood films to schools for the deaf around the country. But while Boatner and O’Connor were able to enlist Hollywood personalities such as Katherine Hepburn and Mrs. Spencer Tracy on their board, limited funding and difficulties in acquiring movies from an industry concerned about film piracy severely restricted their operations, eventually prompting the two pioneers to ask the federal government to take over their operations.2 Specifically, the men approached Senator William Purtell (R-Conn.), who agreed to introduce legislation that would require the Library of Congress to procure, caption, and distribute films to deaf viewers. Similar legislation successfully passed in 1958, but reassigned responsibility for running the new program to the Office of Education, Bureau of Education for the Handicapped of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) after the Library of Congress’s new director turned it down.3

The Captioned Films for the Deaf program officially began operations under the leadership of Dr. John Gough in October of 1959, with $78,000 in appropriations. In the years to come, successive laws would expand the scope of the legislation, and through the vision and guidance of Dr. Malcolm J. Norwood—affectionately referred to as the “father of captioning”—the program would come to authorize the production, acquisition, and distribution of captioned theatrical, documentary, and educational films and media equipment to schools, clubs, and deaf organizations across America.4

* Titra Film Laboratories in New York, which had the American franchise for the Belgium captioning process, ultimately did the captioning for this project, having been persuaded to do so by a deaf businessman and teacher named J. Pierre Rakow.
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