January 18, 2017 By Derek Nicol

The First Deaf Hero in Closed Captioning History

If closed captioning could salute its pioneer, Emerson Romero would be the man. He was a Charlie Chaplain impersonator, an actor for silent movies, and the first to champion accessible media. The best part—he was deaf.

Romero’s career ended when “talkies” hit the studio scene. Narration and dialogue that filled the screen of silent movies vanished once film had sound. For hearing audiences, text on the screen was redundant. And just like that, at the dawn of some bittersweet day in 1927, film was over for deaf people.

While supporting himself working at an airplane manufacturing company, Romero hatched a plan. He purchased various kinds of films; and without a grant or an FCC ordinance, he spliced subtitles into the films and rented the films to schools and clubs for deaf people. By 1947, his operation was considered substantial and reproducible. To the modern day editor, his splicing practices would seem like a hack job. But his dedication to accessibility caused a stir.

Romero’s work attracted the attention of Edmund B. Boatner and J. Pierre Rakow, faculty at the American School for the Deaf. They studied his techniques and implemented them at their school. Just two years later Boatner co-established Captioned Films for the Deaf (CFD) with prestigious board members Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s wife. The CFD open captioned a collection of twenty-nine feature films, making them indispensable to the deaf community across the United States.

Ten years later, the Captioned Film Act came into law, which provided federal funding for the CFD to continue open captioning feature films. The hard work of a few, dedicated people led to legal attention and wider distribution. By the time engineers were dreaming up ways to close caption broadcast programming, open captioned films had been circulating for years. Emerson’s inspirational work sent a message that has only prevailed and strengthened over time: deaf people matter. That’s why today’s television producers agree that all media should be captioned, and with the highest quality.

Derek Nicol

Derek is the marketing and communications guy at CaptionLabs. He created the video that explains StationDrop, CaptionLabs’ very own digital delivery tool. As a lover of fast food, Derek is a McDonald’s enthusiast and competes to be their number one fan.

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