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

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Commission on Education for the Deaf

The Commission on Education of the Deaf (COED) was created by the Education of the Deaf Act of 1986 to assess the quality of and propose solutions for deaf education in the United States. Under the chairmanship of Dr. Frank Bowe, the commission met for well over a year, and on March 18, 1988, released its final report, Toward Equality: Education of the Deaf.77 The document had a number of things to say about closed captioning.

COED identified television as “the most persuasive and influential means of sharing information in America,” and captioned television as the “most significant technological development for persons who are deaf.” But the commission took issue with the way that captioning was funded. Specifically, COED concluded that reliance on the federal government was keeping captioning rates artificially inflated, stifling competition, and preventing this service from becoming privately funded and self-sustaining. Even use of the Department of Education’s money to finance a third generation decoder was perceived to have possibly hurt the long-term viability of captioning.

Toward Equality contained two proposals aimed at securing the future of captioning. First, the report included a recommendation for legislation that would mandate all new TV sets to be capable of decoding and displaying closed captions.78 The theory behind this proposal was that if all television viewers were able to access captions, the larger audiences would make it easier for networks to sell advertising time. The additional revenues that were collected would then help to cover the costs of the networks’ captioning investments. COED based this conclusion in part on NCI’s assertions that the future of closed captioning was “inextricably tied” to the number of households that received those captions; the captioning agency predicted that captions needed to reach 500,000 to 1,000,000 homes by 1990 to truly become self-sustaining.79

Second, the commission recommended the enactment of federal legislation that would require television programmers to caption their shows.80 Despite the considerable growth in captioned programming since 1980, as of 1988, less than one-third of all programming shown on the three major broadcast networks contained captions. Few daytime and late evening programs were captioned, and although more than 38,000,000 American homes subscribed to cable television, captions scarcely appeared on any basic cable programming.[*] Many deaf and hard of hearing consumers shared COED’s concerns. The voluntary efforts by the television industry had been fine for the 1980s. But it was very clear that advocates were ready to see captions taken to the next level as the decade drew to a close.

* Premium cable channels, such as HBO and Showtime, were significantly better, captioning many of their movies.
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