- By Mike Bass
My wife and I still perform our dance while watching TV. I call it the Closed-Captioning Can-Can. It goes something like this:
“Can you hear OK without the captions?”
“Can you see OK with the captions?"
“Can you believe they were rescued by the Loan Ranger?"
“Can you believe they called that ‘dramatic murmuring’ after a ‘jaunty tune’?"
“Can we turn off the captions during the credits?
"Can you stop laughing at the punch line before I hear it?”
It’s usually pretty good-natured … right, honey?
Actually, when it comes to closed-captioning, what my wife needs, my wife should get. She is one of the roughly 48 million — or 20 percent — of Americans 12 and older with hearing loss in at least one ear, according to a 2011 Johns Hopkins study.
(MORE: Coping With Ringing in Your Ears)
She is actually pretty lucky. Bacterial meningitis in college only cost her the hearing in one ear. She almost died.
So now, more than 35 years later, if I feel a little whine coming on with the Can-Can, I try to get over it.
And don’t tell anyone, but I turn on the closed captioning on occasion even when my wife isn’t there. I like to blame the basement acoustics. Or ear wax. Or sometimes it must be the squeaky exercise cycle. Or that I’m eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Considering we both are in our 50s, is it any surprise that both of us might need a little help? According to the Johns Hopkins study, the percentage of hearing loss almost doubles with every age decade.
Making Closed Captioning Better
So it’s in all of our best interests that closed captioning is available. Especially if it works. By March 16, the Federal Communications Commission has announced, all TV closed captioning should be accurate, complete, unobtrusive and in sync with the speakers/background sounds.
(MORE: What's That You Said About New Hearing Aids?)
Which means if we are watching Mad Men, we can gasp simultaneously.
"I watched the SNL at 40 and was totally discouraged,” Lise Hamlin, director of public policy at the Hearing Loss Association of America, wrote in an email interview. "The delay between captions and voice was so long they were onto the next joke before I understood the last. They missed words and made noticeable mistakes. In short, it was unwatchable — for me and people who depend on those captions.”
She was amazed to watch NBC’s rebroadcast of the Saturday Night Live anniversary show about a week later and still see a slew of errors and long delays. Yet, she was “thrilled" to watch CBS's live broadcast of the Grammys and see “clean" captions and just a few-second delays.
"TV captioning is nowhere near where we need to be,” Hamlin wrote. “But we believe with the new rules in place, there is more motivation than ever to get this thing right.”
Credit the American Disabilities Act. This is the 25th anniversary of the legislation requiring effective communication in “every place of public accommodation.”
Some places do better than others.
A Range Of Sound Experiences
My wife and I went to a play recently, and she was tickled that the theater offered a sound-amplifying device.
There was only one catch.
Do you remember the first time you wore a Walkman? And you thought you were talking in a normal tone? And instead you sounded like … THIS!?
Yeah, that happened. It gave a little start to the people around her. My wife laughed later when I told her why I gave her a polite little “Shh."
Another time, we went to a movie, and my wife was excited that the theater offered a closed-captioning device. It was supposed to be placed in the cup holder. But once the movie started, she couldn’t get it to work. She tried, eventually gave up and was bummed.
You have to understand the delight it can be to grasp the words so many of us take for granted.
Try watching the TV with the sound so low, you can barely hear it.
Try sitting at a table with your hand over the ear facing your friends and the other ear facing the wall or a shrieking child.
Try listening to music when one side of the headphones doesn’t work and you can’t switch the other side from stereo to mono.
(MORE: How to Manage Hearing Loss)
New Closed-Captioning Movie Glasses
The other day, we tried another movie theater hoping for better results.
Because the place just changed hands, the website didn’t list any accommodations for the deaf or hard of hearing. So I went old school. I called. (My kids would be so ashamed.) And I didn’t get The Press-7-To-Speak-To-Nobody Circles of Hell. I got a real person. (I got a little verklempt.)
Yes, the voice on the other end said, the theater does offer listening devices. Eight pairs of closed-captioning glasses. At no charge.
We picked up a pair at the ticket counter. We told Ticket Counter Person about our bad experience at the other theater. TCP said she would ensure it was tuned to the right theater in the Cineplex and told my wife she could adjust the sound level — another perk to this Sony product.
My wife tried on the glasses over her glasses. I must say, she rocked the Sonys. They looked kind of “Space is the Final Frontier,” like something Geordi might wear in the Next Next Generation. They were clear, wide, with plastic on the sides.
But the true test would come when the lights went down. Did the Sonys work for the previews? Um, no. But, hey, those were only the previews.
Did they work for the movie? Um, no. My wife was crestfallen.
I hadn’t stepped in the last time, but I did now. I excused-me through the row of annoyed patrons (hey, deal with it) and found an usher who got help programming the glasses to the right theater.
I tested them, and saw the words that were being spoken appearing before my eyes in subtle yet clear green glory. Pretty cool.
My wife loved this. The sound part of the gizmo still didn’t work, but she didn’t care. This was something.
Those glasses plus her glasses got a little heavy after a while; imagine if we add 3D glasses to the mix.
So, it isn’t perfect. But at least we are making progress.
Until then, we Can-Can.
Beyond TV: Tips For Hearing Help
For now, here are four tips to help when you go out for entertainmnt:
1. Going to a movie?
The Justice Department is targeting movie theaters this year. Before you go, check if there are closed-captioning or sound-amplification devices for your movie, and ask how many. Some places offer open-captioning showings.
Arrive early to get the receiver. Ask if it’s been tested, check the battery life and make sure it is programmed properly before the movie begins.
2. How about a play?
Hamlin gave this advice: "Most live theaters have ALS (Assistive Listening Systems) in place. But some small theaters have been exempt for many years. Any entity can claim that providing an accommodation creates an undue burden — extreme difficulty or expense.”
If that’s the case, request a script in advance.
3. Or a museum?
"Museums are more complex, but also must provide effective communication,” Hamlin noted.
Many offer audio devices for tours that may connect into hearing aids. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, offers "real-time captioning for lectures by request,” according to its website. And sign-language interpreters are available for some talks and programs. Plus, transcripts are available for audio-guide programming.
4. What about a sporting event?
Some sports facilities are getting with the program. In January, the Minnesota Wild hockey team added closed captioning for announcements, entertainment and information on their scoreboard above center ice.
On the other hand, the National Association of the Deaf has sued the University of Maryland for not providing closed captioning at its sporting events.
"Sports stadiums were dragging their heels for years,” Hamlin wrote. "One of the problems of the ADA is that it is complaint-driven. There are no ADA police. It’s up to an individual who attempted to attend an event and found it inaccessible and then filed a complaint to DOJ (Department of Justice), or filed a claim in court. That is not done nearly as often as it should be.”
Mike Bass is an adjunct journalism instructor at Northwestern University and freelance writer based in the Chicago area. The former sports editor has written two books and limits his singing of TV theme songs to the shower for the sake of his wife's sanity.