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American Annals of the Deaf

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

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music to accompany the video, but this might not be sufficiently related to the speech to be in compliance with the guidelines. The event could be narrated, but viewers might wonder why someone was speaking for the president. Instead, Phil Collyer, The Caption Center’s first director, settled on an unlikely alternative: he arranged for the captioned version to be accompanied by an oral translation in Spanish, prepared by the Berlitz School of Languages! As a result, on January 20, 1973, deaf and hard of hearing viewers were able to watch and understand a televised presidential inauguration for the first time in the nation’s history.[*]

Having demonstrated that an event could be televised and later rebroadcast with captions, Collyer approached ABC about doing the same for its national evening news program.10 The network already allowed the Rochester, New York, public station to broadcast its newscast with a sign language interpreter, so it seemed a likely candidate to allow rebroadcasts with captions. After ABC gave its consent, it took six additional months and a team of captioners working under Collyer to figure out the logistics of converting the rapid and specialized vocabulary of the ABC newscasts into captions that could be readily understood by the deaf community.

On December 3, 1973, The Captioned ABC Evening News appeared for the first time with open captions in three cities: Boston, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Orono, Maine.[†] A week later, permission was extended to air the program on all ten public stations of the Eastern Educational Network. By August 1974, pressure from deaf consumers prompted PBS to distribute the program to local affiliates around the nation, and over the next eight years, more than 190 public stations broadcasted the accessible newscast.11 During the next several years, PBS also expanded other open captioned programming to approximately five hours per week. In addition to rebroadcasts of presidential campaign debates, open captions were added to various PBS series, including Zoom, Masterpiece Theater, Nova, and Great Performances.

Line 21 Takes Hold

While some local public television stations carried broadcasts with open captioning in the early 1970s, other broadcasters and networks, led by PBS, continued to explore closed caption alternatives. In 1972, HEW took over the NAB’s initial endeavors, and awarded a contract to PBS to develop the line 21 technology and prototype decoders. A team of PBS engineers, working under John E. D. Ball, began line 21 testing during the fall of 1972, and two years later, the FCC granted temporary authority to try the new system over the airwaves. PBS responded with a fourteen-week test during which Gallaudet researchers recorded the reactions of deaf and hard of hearing audiences watching captioned programs at twelve public television stations around the nation.12

Viewer response to the new system was overwhelming: 95 percent reported an interest in purchasing home decoders, and deaf associations quickly pledged their support to mobilizing decoder sales. In 1975, after additional market surveys sponsored by PBS and conducted by the Deafness Research and Training Center of New York University confirmed the effectiveness of and interest in the new technology, PBS petitioned the FCC to permanently reserve line 21 for closed captions.13

While the major commercial television networks had initially expressed interest in a closed form of captioning, these networks now dealt a considerable blow to line 21’s progress. Insisting that the closed captioning system was not yet technically possible, they opposed PBS’s petition, effectively delaying an FCC response for nearly a year. To spur the FCC into action, consumers sought help on Capitol Hill. On October 1, 1976, they were successful in getting Senator


* In fact, the captions for the twenty-two minute speech were ready a full hour before the Spanish feed was completed.

† The broadcasts were originally scheduled to begin a few months earlier, but were delayed as a result of scheduling changes made by PBS to rebroadcast the Watergate hearings during the late evening. Sharon Earley, one of the show’s first producers, described the challenges that WGBH had confronted in preparing these programs during its earliest months. “Captioning at WGBH-TV,” American Annals of the Deaf (October 1978): 655–662. She wrote that Collyer and his staff “enrolled themselves in a self-directed crash course in the science of reading and in deafness.” Ibid., 657.


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