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Closed Captions
Oregon's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (ODHHS)-Technical Assistance Center
ODHHS Information and Technical Assistance Series
Closed Captions: An Untapped
Resource in Combatting Illiteracy
(Source: Andrea Shettle, Gallaudet University, Aug 1996)
Have you read a good television program lately?
If not, it may be because you don´t have a closed caption decoder attached to, or built into, your television set--yet. If you have not been using closed captions it might be because you don´t even know what closed-captions are. Or it´s because you think closed captions are those "funny subtitle things for deaf people," not for hearing people like you. Perhaps you didn´t realize that closed captions could help your children practice their reading skills or help your Spanish-speaking neighbors learn English.
Well, let me tell you a little more about closed captions.
Closed captions are subtitle-like captions broadcast with many television shows and recorded with many home rental video movies in the United States and (usually to a much lesser extent) many other countries in the world. Closed captions are invisible until decoded by a caption decoder, whether this decoder is a separate piece of equipment attached to the television set or is built into the television set itself. Closed caption technology was first developed to enable deaf and hard of hearing people to watch television.
But closed captions are NOT just for deaf and hard of hearing people. While I´m not sure how extensive the research has been, at some indicates that people who leave their caption decoder on when they watch television improve their reading scores. The National Captioning Institute (NCI) reports that about half of all caption decoders have been sold to foreign immigrants learning English as a second language. Apparently people learning English for the first time find it easier to understand (and learn) idioms and other expressions when they see them in print as well as hearing them.
Closed captioned television is clearly not a magic cure for the massive problem of illiteracy. Illiteracy is too deep-seated and complex a problem to be solved with closed captions alone. Also clearly, the presence of closed captions should not become an excuse to permit children to continue watching television to the harmfully excessive extent they often do. Closed captions, however, could be a valuable motivating tool in encouraging the development of reading skills. It´s literally as simple as turning on your caption decoder whenever young children (or older children--and adults--who have been struggling to learn how to read) are in the room. Closed captions can also have recreational value to people in noisy bars who want to catch the score in the big ballgame, and to people who are asked to TURN THAT THING DOWN! I´M ON THE PHONE! (Go ahead and turn it down. The captions will capture even whispers, and that sinister sound of footsteps coming from the darkness.)
Good news for people in the United States! Starting July 1, 1993, by law, all television sets 13 inches or larger manufactured for sale in the United States have had a caption decoder built inside, at considerably lower cost than buying a decoder separately (you will notice little, if any, difference in the cost of your television set). A few models may have decoders available in screens as small as nine inches. Those who don´t want to wait until the next time they plan to buy a television set to start using closed captions can still purchase one separately from NCI (address provided below; note that these decoders may not be compatible with television sets outside of the U.S. and Canada, but contact NCI for more information).
The bad news is that not everything is captioned, especially once you venture beyond prime-time television and major release movies. But far more is captioned today than was in 1980 when closed captions began, and more is being captioned all the time in part due to letters of encouragement from consumers of closed captions.
Before closing, I should mention that Zenith television is the ONLY television manufacturer who actually supported the bill requiring that closed caption decoders be built into television sets 13 inches and larger. Zenith started building decoders into selected models in the fall of 1991--a year and a half before they had to. I have no connection to Zenith, I just wanted to give recognition where it´s due.
More info:

National Captioning Institute, Inc.
1900 Gallows Road, Suite 3000
Vienna, VA 22182  U.S.A.
(800) 533-9673 (for hearing people)
(800) 321-8337 (TTY)
(703) 917-7600 (Voice/TTY)

Other sources of information include:

(412) 261-1458 (Voice) or
(412) 232-6344 (TTY) or
(412) 261-6257 (fax)

The Caption Center
(617) 492-9225 (Voice/TTY) or
(617) 562-0590 (fax)

Real-Time Captions, Inc.
(818) 376-0406 (Voice/TTY)
(818) 376-0416 (fax)
These are only a few of the captioning vendors that exist. The National Information Center on Deafness at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Avenue NE, Washington, DC 20002-3695 has a more comprehensive list of vendors. (See Gallaudet´s web page at http://www.gallaudet.edu/)