Sunday, August 7, 2011

American Broadcasting and the Deaf

For most of the history of American electronic media, the deaf were excluded from participating. Certainly radio and sound recordings were useless to most deaf people, although if you turn up the music loud enough to generate vibrations, the deaf will get up and dance as readily as the hearing.

Silent movies turned out to be a real benefit for the deaf since they could follow the story as well as anyone else. Many silent films, although they contained captions every few scenes or frames, also included a lot of physical comedy or exaggerated acting for obvious reasons.

Sometime in the early days of Hollywood, someone began applying subtitles to films even though they were English language films and the captions were in English. This was for the handicapped-the deaf, primarily. And at state schools-for-the-deaf across the U.S. and at many deaf clubs, captioned movies were a big hit.

But when television came along closed-captioning was still decades away. It may be because the content was created too quickly for anyone to take time to caption each episode. In any case, the deaf were forced to either try to read lips, or to watch programming that didn't require any text translation. Sporting events is the clearest example of this. Many deaf people who probably would otherwise not be sports fans (including many women in the days when this was a much more male domain) began watching sports on television for lack of any other intelligible programming. My mother loved watching the big three professional sports as well as college football and basketball.

My mother also told me that when she was in college and just afterward, one of the programs she used to look forward to watching was, "Your Show of Shows." This was an American hit in the 1950s featuring Sid Cesar, Carl Reiner and many other comics. She pointed it out to me once when I was a teenager and had stumbled across some reruns. She said it was hilarious. And I guess it was appealing mostly because of the physical nature of the gags.

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