Today, you can turn on almost any TV channel, film, or YouTube video and have immediate access to closed captions. They’re so common that it’s easy to take them for granted. But, it took decades of work by advocates from Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities to make captions available for anyone who needs them.

In this article, we pay respect to those who worked hard so we all could have access to captions.

The Silent Film Era

Before the advent of “talkies,” films that have spoken dialogue, a night out at the movies could be enjoyed by both people with hearing and Deaf people. Since the characters couldn’t speak, everything had to be conveyed visually. Actors adopted an over-dramatic acting style and read important information off title cards.

The first major film with recorded sound was 1927’s The Jazz Singer. A huge hit for Warner Brothers, it marked the end of the silent film era, but at the cost of excluding the Deaf and Hard of Hearing audience.

This exclusion extended to Deaf actors too. Emerson Romero, a Deaf silent movie actor who worked with W.C. Fields, was shut out of the industry. Determined, Emerson went on to create the first movie captioning system by splicing film strips and inserting written captions between picture frames.

Right: Emerson Romero

While the captions were of poor quality, others took note of his efforts. Most notably, Edmund Burke Boatner, superintendent of the American School for the Deaf, who went on to cofound the U.S. government-funded Captioned Films for the Deaf program.

The First Use of Captions on TV

In 1971, during the First National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired in Nashville, Tennessee, captioning was first exhibited in the United States — proving that the concept works.

The following year, Julia Child’s cooking show The French Chef was the first TV show to implement captions. It wasn’t perfect: The open captions couldn’t be turned off. But the success of the show led Washington D.C.’s public television station, WETA, to develop a method of including captions with TV broadcasts. The following year, the FCC granted PBS the ability to include captions on all their broadcasts.

Courtesy of WGBH

It took until 1980 for captions to appear on national television, “The Son of Flubber” being one of the first shows to be broadcast with captions. Unfortunately, to see the captions, people had to buy a separate Telecaption decoder from Sears. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Television Decoder Circuitry Act mandated that all new TVs sold would include the ability to display closed captions.

The Future of Captions

Even though it took 53 years after the end of the silent movie era for closed captions to be available to everyone, the current momentum toward accessibility will bring exciting developments.

And what is the future of closed captions? Automatic speech recognition software. A technology that automatically adds captioning to audio data, such as a television show, a YouTube video, or even a phone call. While not perfect, this technology promises to improve over time.

Thank You to Those Who Came Before Us

Having access to captions can be life-changing. We see it every day. While not the same as televised closed captions, CaptionCall provides Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) paid by the Telecommunication Relay Service (TRS) fund. If you or someone you love has hearing loss that necessitates the need for captioning, consider CaptionCall.