Captions Open Window on Culture, Learning

By Steven Drummond — February 25, 1998 6 min read
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This month on Jerry Springer: “Stripper Wars,” “I Have a Bizarre Sex Life,” and “You Can’t Have My Man.”

Such lurid topics long ago lost their ability to raise the eyebrows of most people familiar with daytime television. But for viewers watching in a bar or health club, with the sound turned off and the dialogue scrolling across the bottom of the screen, the real shocker may come at the end of the program: “Captioning made possible by the U.S. Department of Education ... “

Yes, it’s true. A little-known program in the department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services offers funds for the captioning of movies, videos, and television programs that provide “enriched educational and cultural experiences.” That includes the nightly news, Hollywood films, children’s programs, and such popular daytime fare as “All My Children” and “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Cultural Norms

Not everyone thinks that’s such a wise use of the taxpayers’ money. In 1995 and 1996, during debates over whether to abolish the Education Department, some congressional Republicans questioned federal support for captioning programs that they considered of dubious educational value.

But department officials--and advocates for the nation’s estimated 20 million deaf and hearing-impaired people--say the government has no business deciding what’s enriching or culturally appropriate and what isn’t. In other words, deaf people should have the same access to what cross-dressing lovers, cuckolded husbands, and cheated-on wives have to say as anyone else.

If it’s on television, “it’s part of the culture,” said Ernest E. Hairston, an associate director in the Education Department’s office of special education programs. It’s a culture many hearing people take for granted. “I would be in the dark if I don’t have the same experiences they have,” added Mr. Hairston, who is deaf.

Of course, there’s a lot more to captioning than soap operas and sleaze. Each year, the Education Department helps bring into homes and classrooms captioned versions of the network news, CNN, National Geographic specials, and a wide range of other educational programming.

‘How People Speak’

Many of those programs end up playing on the giant-size television set at the Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minn.

“We totally depend on captioning,” said Dyan Sherwood, a teacher and team coordinator at the 40-student charter school, where all the students and most of the teachers are deaf or hearing-impaired.

The elementary school’s primary language is American Sign Language. English is taught as a second language.

By watching a captioned video, Ms. Sherwood said, students pick up English at the same time they’re learning about elephants or electrons.

Captioning provides hearing-impaired students access to the subtleties and nuances of English as it is spoken, not just as it is written, said Jo Ann McCann, an Education Department program specialist who oversees the grants for captioning television programs.

“People do not talk in formal language. They leave sentences hanging,” Ms. McCann said. By watching captioned programs such as soap operas, “deaf or hearing-impaired people can get an idea that that’s how people speak.”

Literacy Tool

And there are also benefits for nondisabled students. Some research suggests that captioned TV helps with vocabulary development, spelling, and language acquisition.

“With captioning, there’s an interaction between the words and pictures,” Ms. McCann said. “It’s a literacy tool that could be used more strongly in the general population.”

Though captioning is essential at schools such as Metro Deaf, it is also vital in schools where deaf or hearing-impaired students attend classes with children who can hear.

Research has indicated that captioning does a much better job than other options, such as having a sign-language interpreter stand next to the television set.

“Students can’t have their eyes in two places at the same time,” said Judy Harkins, the project director of the Technology Assessment Program at Gallaudet University in Washington.

Yet a survey Ms. Harkins conducted in 1994 of 175 public school teachers who had deaf children in their classes found that more than two-thirds had shown noncaptioned videos during that school year. Only about 10 percent, she said, reported that all the videos they showed were captioned.

A Drop in the Bucket

The main reason for that, of course, is that “most of the stuff that’s out there ain’t captioned, and there’s no law that says it has to be,” said Billy L. Stark, the project director of the Captioned Films/Videos Program in Spartanburg, S.C.

Under the auspices of the National Association of the Deaf, the program receives an Education Department grant to select, caption, and disseminate educational and general-interest films and videos.

With more than 4,000 titles, the program operates like a massive lending library for captioned materials and counts several thousand teachers among its more than 30,000 active users, Mr. Stark said.

“We looked at programs to see what deaf people wanted access to,” Ms. McCann said. “The first was the nightly news, then feature films, then children’s television programming.”

The federal role in providing media access to people with disabilities began in 1958, with a $78,000 appropriation for captioning films, and has since expanded to about $20 million for a broad variety of activities, including captioning; “video description,” which provides narration of films and videos for blind people; and the National Theatre of the Deaf.

Today, the captioning program reaches only a tiny slice of the entire television and video industry, Ms. McCann said.

But there has been success: About 95 percent of programs broadcast nationally are captioned, she said.

And although many large production companies and the networks have come to appreciate the value of captioning, that’s not always true of thousands of smaller producers of educational programs and videos, as well as local television, where huge gaps remain.

“We’re trying to get the producers to caption their own,” Mr. Hairston said.

Role for States

So far, that hasn’t been easy. “It’s been like pulling teeth getting people to voluntarily do this,” said Ms. Harkins of Gallaudet, a leading institution of higher education for the deaf.

She and other experts agreed that states and school districts could help by giving the industry a shove.

“If just one state or a large district would make a policy that everything they buy is captioned, everybody would benefit,” Ms. Harkins said.

Few, if any, states have shown much interest. “I’ve not seen anything like that,” said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Another vast area of uncaptioned territory is the computer-software market.

“Most children’s software geared for elementary-age students is auditory-based,” Ms. Sherwood of the Metro Deaf School said. “All the directions come through talking, and we can’t access them.”

Given the size and complexity of the software industry, experts agree, much of the impetus for making software programs accessible will have to come from the industry itself.

“Part of our priority is to address that,” said Mark Goldfarb, an Education Department program specialist.

“But we can only move so fast, and the multimedia industry is moving much faster than the government.”

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