Turn on the Words!

Deaf Audiences, Captions, and the Long Struggle for Access

By Harry G. Lang
Foreword by Ernest E Hairston
Afterword by Jason Stark

Categories: Deaf History, Deaf Studies
Imprint: Gallaudet University Press
Paperback : 9781944838843, 339 pages, December 2021
Ebook : 9781944838850, 328 pages, December 2021
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Documents the struggles and strategies over nearly a century to make spoken communication accessible through the use of captioning technology.



The story of how captioning came into the lives of deaf and hard of hearing people has not been told with any detail, though captions are one of the greatest technological advancements in the effort to improve access to films, television, and other video content for both deaf and hearing audiences. In Turn on the Words!, Harry G. Lang documents the struggles and strategies over nearly a century to make spoken communication accessible through the use of captioning technology.

       Lang describes the legislation, programs, and people who contributed great ingenuity and passion over decades to realize widespread access to captions, one breakthrough at a time. He also chronicles the resistance to captioned films from Hollywood studios and others, and the Deaf and hearing activists who championed the right to access. Deaf, hard of hearing, disabled, and English-as-a-second-language audiences now experience improved access to the educational, occupational, and cultural benefits of film and television programming. The struggle continues as deaf audiences advocate for equal access in a variety of settings such as movie theaters and online video-sharing platforms. This is a history of technological innovation, as well as a testament to the contributions of the Deaf community to the benefit of society as a whole.

       This book has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this book do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Harry G. Lang is Professor Emeritus, National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology. His previous books include Fighting in the Shadows: Untold Stories of Deaf People in the Civil War and A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell. He is a recipient of the Dr. John S. and Dr. Betty J. Schuchman Deaf History Award for excellence in the field of Deaf history.



  • CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2022


"Showcases how grassroots and Deaf-led innovation was always at the forefront of captioning and accessible entertainment. As Lang’s book makes clear - deaf communities were not passive consumers and were not given access. For over a century, deaf individuals and organizations have been creating the technologies, networks, and movements for media access on their own terms while simultaneously working for structural reforms through federal legislation and rulemaking. I would recommend Lang’s book to anyone interested in US history, deaf and disability history, media studies, education history, or communication technologies. The barriers and breakthroughs he walks readers through establish that the captions achieved to date were not inevitable - nor is the future of captioning and broader information access guaranteed."

— Kaitlin Stack Whitney, Disability & Society

"Lang does a great job of explaining all that took place for us to be able to watch captioned films for both education and entertainment. Today, we may take for granted that most TV shows and video-streamed movies are captioned, unlike years ago ... People who went through periods of no captions or the beginning of captions will especially appreciate and enjoy this book. They may also recognize the names of people and organizations that were quite active with captioning and the captioning movement. For other people who have frequently had access to captions, they will also appreciate and enjoy the rich historical information about the struggles, successes, and caution about the politics of captions so that we can all always 'turn on the words!'"

— Cheryl L. Shahan, Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education

"Harry G. Lang presents a sweeping history of media captioning in the United States, combining stories of technological advances with social activism and individual endeavors. Drawing on his own experiences as a D/deaf person trying to access both educational and entertainment media, this work is profoundly personal and thoroughly researched. The detail and depth of information that Lang supplies is extraordinary, especially given that it is a history involving technical developments, multiple institutions with ever-changing names, and a vast number of individuals. It is a considerable asset to scholars interested in D/deaf, disability and media history."

— Rachel Garratt, H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences

"That captions enrich everyone—deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing persons as well as people with disabilities—is the kernel of this book. Lang turns dry details into vivid prose while chronicling the more than 70-year, Deaf-led movement for access to what hearing people take for granted: access to films/movies, television, videotapes/CD-ROMs, and internet videos/streaming media."

— J.F. Andrews, CHOICE