Meandering Through A Hearing World: The History of Closed Captions for People Who Suffer Hearing Loss

On most mornings I spend time in the gym, walking on a treadmill. While ambling, I tune into television, pleased to have the ability to listen with my eyes using Closed Captioning. I’m a long time user of captions. My hearing is such that I would not be able to watch television without this wonderful service. I often think back to the days before it existed and how television viewing was difficult if not impossible. Thanks to this technology and legislation Closed Captioning is now mainstream, allowing all with hearing difficulties access to television programs, plays, and museum and public exhibits.

About thirty years ago, I received access to closed-captioning when my parents presented me with a gift of a decoder box for my Sony Trinitron. The little unit that sat on top of my television was a godsend. Overtime I had been cranking up my television’s volume and complaining I couldn’t hear any programming well. Their gift made television viewing a pleasure.

Closed Captioning didn’t become available overnight. The technology emerged in Nashville, Tennessee in 1971 at the first National Conference for The Hearing Impaired. In 1972, The Bureau of Standards demonstrated another version of Closed Captioning at Gallaudet University. These early devices did not display the spoken word in real time, which made it difficult for anyone to follow a conversation using them. Things changed a bit when the National Captioning Institute was created in 1979 and gained cooperation of local networks. The following year, Disney’s Wonderful World, the ABC Sunday Night Movie, and Masterpiece Theater broadcasted programs with Closed Captioning. Sears sold the first Telecaption Adapter, a decoder which could be attached to any television.

In the beginning, Closed Captioning had no standards. Each network determined how captions would be displayed. There were frequent interruptions and interpretations of what was being said. In 1990 the Television Decoder Act was passed, giving the FCC the power to enact rules on the implantation of Closed Captioning. In 1993, televisions were required to have the ability to display Closed Captioning, thus ending a need for a separate box. I remember cheering when buying a new television that year. In 1996 The Telecommunications Act expanded their requirement and mandated that all television programming distributors provide Closed Captioning. Captioning became consistent in 2014 when the FCC demanded that all captioning follow the same standards. For the first time, you could tune into any program and enjoy consistent captions in real time.

I am grateful for all this legislation. Now, people with hearing loss have the ability to enjoy television and public displays. So the next time you stream your favorite Netflix movie or watch programing through your cable provider, remember that the Closed Captions you read took a great deal of legislation and a long time coming.