Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Why I am interested in captioning

Why am I interested in captioning, audio description, subtitling, dubbing, Web access, and the like?

For some reason I was up late one night in 1977 and, sitting in front of the television, tick-tick-ticked from one station to the next trying to find something to justify continuing to stay up late on a schoolnight. Tick: What the heck is Frank Reynolds doing on a 12:30 in the morning on PBS with words on the screen? I had managed to run across The Captioned ABC News, a nightly rebroadcast of ABC’s World News Tonight with open captions. I watched with strange fascination.

Same the next night. And the next. Soon I was spending most nights of the week up till 0100 hours watching the captioned version of a newscast that in many cases I’d seen on its original live feed five hours previously. This did not go over well with my mother, who somehow assumed I had found pornography or something else objectionable to watch at that hour (staying up with me a few times – pretending, unconvincingly, to be interested in the actual show ’ put that notion to rest), or with my circadian rhythms. I stuck with it anyway.

I was, you see, a typical bookworm with a big mouth and a big vocabulary to feed it, the least popular student in my junior high school and without a doubt the only hearing person in all of New Brunswick who even knew what captioning was, much less being a fan of it. They were strange days, these. The Captioned ABC News used an unusual font (similar to News Gothic, but much less refined; this is TV we’re talking about), edited newscaster and other English to a putatively easy reading level on the assumption that typical deaf people couldn’t understand more, and did an as-yet-unmatched job of positioning captions to show who’s speaking. But I didn’t realize any of those things yet, because My Journey Had Not Yet Begun.

The Captioned ABC News suited me in ways I would not be able to articulate for many years. The interplay between unedited dialogue and heavily-edited captions was fascinating, as were other issues, like where to divide long sentences into discrete captions, what absolutely could not be edited, and exactly which grammatical constructions were inevitably transformed into which other constructions.

I started corresponding, using a typewriter that conveniently concealed my age, with the Caption Center at WGBH in Boston and a man at the National Association of the Deaf who would later work for NCI. I asked WGBH about the typeface they used, whose w was taller than the other lowercase characters and whose quotation marks were two simple dots. The small caps didn’t look quite right, either. My mother was considerate enough to throw out all my captioning files from the 1970s and 1980s as soon as I left for university, so the exact correspondence is gone forever and I can’t tell you what the font was called, but that simple question led me to study Letraset catalogues and whatever magazines on typography were available in the ’70s (U&lc and Print, mainly) and pester local printing houses to learn everything about typography.

I’m still learning. It’s unknowable in totum; one can know only a part of typography. But I know enough about it to have written a fair clutch of very smart and authoritative articles; I can identify most fonts in common use; at gunpoint, I can design something decent-looking; I know all the rules, plus their exceptions and provisos. (Captioning is very much an art like typography, governed by rules and poked and prodded by exceptions and provisos.)

Also, in the early 1980s personal computers were just beginning to become remotely powerful enough, not to mention compact and “affordable,” to be genuinely useful in real life, and I took to the Apple IIe and the Macintosh like a Republican to a bathhouse. I could actually write on these things, and fix my mistakes while I was doing it.

I bought an original Macintosh 128 in 1985 (using far more borrowed money than was wise) and have stuck to the Macintosh religion ever since then. I also have worked extensively with DOS, a bit with Windows, less with OS/2, and the tiniest bit with Unix, and consider only Windows beyond the pale. Computer knowledge has come in handy in dealing with technical issues in captioning, since nearly all closed-captioning is created on clunky DOS computers (or, worse, dedicated terminals in PAL countries) that are scarcely more highly evolved than an Apple IIe.

When I tell people I’ve been watching captioned TV for 22 years, breaks of several years while I attended university and was generally away from television altogether must be factored in. I went to engineering school at Dalhousie University, Halifax, in 1983. I stuck with it for the two years necessary to land the junior degree known as diploma in engineering and high-tailed it out of the Maritimes for Montreal, where I became the No. 2 student at McGill’s linguistics department. I would later transfer to the University of Toronto and receive my linguistics B.A. in a mailing tube in 1989. Also, my interest in captioning naturally led to exploring other disability issues, including, oddly enough, sports.

I am a big fan of audio description. While I am not natively fluent in its paradigms as I am in captioning (no one but the Pfanstiels, A.D.’s originators, is; the medium is too new), I am learning fast and should not be underestimated.

Captioning has been the single largest influence on my life. This is not an exaggeration. I happened to be born wired for language (unfortunately, only one language ’ if you miss learning second, third, and nth languages before puberty, you are stuck with what you’ve got forever) and aced every spelling bee in grade school, coming in second in only one case ’ ironically enough, tanking on the word beau. I know my way around every nook and cranny of the English language. I’ve written 390 published articles, including a dozen published (and several unpublished) on captioning.

(Captioners thus need to take heed whenever I criticize them for overzealous or insensitive editing, malapropism, or simply mistranscribing the audio: I know what I’m talking about, and no, I would not make your mistakes. In fact, no captioners anywhere have been able to explain exactly how a 35-year-old queen watching a 13″ Sears TV manages to spot error after error when those captioners’ flotilla of trained, if occasionally indifferent and self-impressed, workers and their allegedly sophisticated proofing systems cannot do the same. Nor can they explain why they made the mistakes in the first place and need me to catch them.)

In addition, I briefed a House of Commons legislative committee on what a new Broadcasting Act really needed on the topic of captioning (I was ignored), and I gave a speech at the Deaf Way conference in 1989 on the typographic requirements of captioning for HDTV, a lecture whose findings would later make their way, unattributed, into at least one technical paper authored by major American captioning-industry figures, one of whom has no recollection of my paper or lecture. For nearly five years, I’ve run the Media Access mailing list, the only list discussing captioning, audio description, and other techniques to make media of information accessible to persons with disabilities... and others.

Also, a business partner and I tried twice in the late 1980s to start a captioning company that would do it right. Unfortunately, our timing was lousy: The stock market crashed just as our proposal was sitting in vulture capitalists’ laps. What some nabobs abovecited fail to understand is that my partner’s interest was making money; mine was making good captions, which no captioner in Canada has done or is doing for prerecorded programming. (They vary only in the extent to which they are incompetent, from irksomely to outrageously.) Today, though, I consider the closed-captioning industry too broken to fix and am now thinking beyond closed-captioning. I rather doubt anyone else is.

People like me don’t grow on trees. The only other hearing person I’ve met (apart from hearing kids of deaf parents) who grew up with some knowledge of captioning and stuck with it is Michael Grossman, currently ensconced at the Caption Center. I am all but unique. You’d think this would make me valuable to the captioning industry, which isn’t exactly as prominent or popular as medicine or the law. Instead, because I really know captioning inside-out, know what the captioning system on this side of the pond can and can’t do, am totally fluent in many registers of spoken and written English, know typography and computers, and am never shy to point out captioners’ mistakes, what I mostly get is abuse.

After 22 years and with unrelenting opposition to my interest in captioning from everyone from my mother to the heads of major captioning bodies, it should be apparent that I am not going to go away. I definitely am not in it for the money; life without captioning is unimaginable. I am right vastly more often than I am wrong, and I have a certain ability to get press on captioning issues. You can either work with me or against me. So far, not many people have chosen to work with me. But you all will get a second and a third and a fourth chance: I have a few projects up my sleeve for innovative uses of captioning and audio description, and I can’t do them alone. You can get in on the ground floor of the future of captioning with a 22-year veteran who knows the medium the way a kite knows the wind, or you can try to stop me. Best make up your mind right now so I’ll know where you stand.

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Updated 2007.03.09 ¶ 2012.05.04

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