Why closed captions are awesome

When I say closed captions changed my life, I’m not being hyperbolic or a drama queen. I’m stating a fact.

The story of how I learned to read is shrouded in mystery. As a child born totally deaf—which is quite rare, as most people classified as deaf have some sensation of hearing—my reading future didn’t look good. During the 80s, expectations were low for a deaf child’s literacy. The Deaf had a historically low literacy rates (which, ironically, were mostly caused by the suppression of Sign in favor of speech and other inadequacies in one’s linguistic environment). People expected me to struggle to read and write. Low expectations were the rule back then.

But I learned to read. On my own at age three.

My parents always had the captions turned on. It helped my mother pick up more idiomatic English as an immigrant. So, our diddly little TV always had captions on, although it rarely appeared. In those days, only a few prime time shows and PBS had captions.

One day my mother found me watching Smurfs, one of the few children’s shows with captions. “What’s happening?” she asked me in Sign, curious if I was picking up anything. I most certainly couldn’t read cartoons’ lips. I relayed a surprisingly accurate description of the storyline, giving my mother details that couldn’t have been inferred without some knowledge of the dialogue. Somewhere along the way, I had learned how to read from the captions.

It is because of captions that I fell in love with words, whether on the television screen or the printed page.

Captions were still rare in those days before major telecommunications accessibility acts. This is why I grew up on Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple movies instead of the kids’ movies everyone else went to the theaters to watch. This is why I can recite lines from old movies like Singing in the Rain *and *The Philadelphia Story, having watched them so often. You see, the classics—including musicals—were the first to get captioned. I loved them all. The dancing and singing captivated me even though I could “only” read the lyrics and see the footwork. That was more than enough. It is because of captions that I know more about old-school movies than a 30somethings should.

Whenever I was invited to a sleepover, my mother and I would show up with the big black caption-decoder box. I went off to play with my friends as the adults crowded around the TV, trying to figure out what wire went where. (Not always successfully.) It is because of captions that I could go to my hearing friends’ sleepovers and watched movies alongside them without missing a word.

Things improved as the years went by as Congress passed multiple accessibility acts. More and more TV shows and movies were being captioned. Televisions began to have decoders built in, obviating the need for unwieldy decoder boxes. I could now watch almost any show or movie almost anywhere, except … the movie theaters, which rarely showed open-captioned movies. I watched everything from Baywatch to Die Hard, resulting in a very age-inappropriate crush on Bruce Willis. Slang such as yippee-ki-yay became part of my lexicon. I learned how to run on the beach all sexy-like. The former being far more useful than the latter. It is because of captions that I was fairly plugged into the popular culture during my teens and early adulthood.

My love affair with television (and captions) came to an abrupt halt when my eyesight grew too foggy to read the captions. No matter how close I sat to the screen, how hard I listened with my cochlear implant, I couldn’t follow the story. The images were too blurred, the voices too rapid for me to understand. I became resigned to my television-free existence. Even though I still had my other love—books, via Braille—I still missed my other one. As my sight fades, I’ve found myself missing TV far more than sunsets or flowers. Go figure.

Then Apple came out with a software update in late 2017 that changed all that. It introduced Braille capability for closed captions. That meant—wait for it—I could read the captions using a refreshable braille reader! Joys to end all joys, right? Well, I’m still not quite fast enough to catch all—or even most—of the rapid-fire dialogue, but the possibilities are there. One day, I will be able to watch television once again … sort of. Close enough, though. it is because of captions that my fading sight hasn’t spelled the end of my television addiction.

So, yeah. Captions do help deaf people enjoy TV, especially this one. They tell us what people are saying, what kind of music is playing, whether it is scary or happy, and when a phone is ringing. Without these details, most TV shows and movies aren’t even worth watching. Quality of the captions continues to be an issue, though.