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Caption Action - Grassroots Movement to Increase Captioning


Updated February 26, 2010

What did I write in my letter to Spanky McFarland (who passed away just 3 years later)? I had written, in part: "You were a gifted child actor whose films I may never get to fully appreciate. I may never get to appreciate your classic 'Our Gang' comedies because I am deaf...I have been a Rascals fan since childhood and video is my last hope for understanding the antics of Spanky and the Gang...Caption Action has asked Republic to caption their vids. Republic also has other classic films which we can't appreciate...Republic is on the 'most horrible' companies list by Gopen in DEAF LIFE magazine (May 1990). I have written to Republic twice, and gotten no response. You are our last hope. Perhaps if you made Republic see how important closed captioning is, maybe I will have a chance to enjoy your films before I die."

Caption Action And Star Trek

When word got out in the deaf and hard of hearing community about my success with Republic, I began receiving letters pleading with me to do something about Paramount Pictures Home Video and the lack of captions on the original Star Trek home videos (and I wasn't a fan of Star Trek). Plus, Paramount told Gopen that the original Star Trek series would be re-released on home video the following year for the series' 25th anniversary. Paramount wanted to get letters from deaf and hearing people saying they would buy the tapes if the tapes were captioned. My next Caption Action press release was titled "Ask Paramount to Beam Up More Captions."

This time though, I instinctively knew the efforts of deaf people and the general disability community would not be enough. We needed more support from key hearing people. How to get it?? The answer was an early form of social networking. We did not have the Internet as we know it today. The only tools available to me then were email, letter writing, and computer bulletin boards on computer information services such as Prodigy, CompuServe, and GEnie. I found that there were Star Trek fan groups, and posted messages on Star Trek bulletin boards explaining the situation. Within days I began hearing from people such as an editor of a Star Trek newsletter (Dateline: Starfleet, and U.S.S. Antares) who published editorials in their newsletters. Those hearing fans contacted Paramount and together with deaf and hard of hearing people, helped convince them to caption the original Star Trek.

Caption Action and Capitol Hill

Caption Action's mission also broadened to include efforts to help get the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 passed. This was the law that required televisions with screens 13 inches or larger to have closed caption decoding circuitry. (It did not require captioning of television programs; that happened later with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.) I kept an eye on what was happening on Capitol Hill. When a Electronics Industries Association representative testified against the bill, I teamed up with a friend to fax a sharply written rebuttal to the EIA. Soon after, the EIA dropped its opposition to the Act.

Caption Action Lessons Learned

I learned important leadership lessons from Caption Action. I don't remember how many signatures we ended up with, but it was at least 50,000. The most important thing that I learned is that when the deaf and hard of hearing community wants something, it can not get it without the support of hearing people. Sad, but true. If it is only deaf and hard of hearing people complaining or protesting, we tend to be ignored. But when hearing people get involved too, stakeholders wake up and realize the importance of the issue.

Today, the deaf and hard of hearing community faces a new, similar battle: getting captions on the Internet. The legislation that required captioning on television -- the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- does not apply to the Internet. On Facebook, there is a Caption Action 2 cause.

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