Captioning for the Deaf: Where Did It Come From?

Captioning of television and movies is a staple of the environment these days.  Something that young audiologists of the 1970s were not able to recommend to theircc4 patients to enjoy entertainment as well as educational films.  Later, at least in the US, with a “decoder” device hooked to the television hearing impaired individuals could actually interact with the television for news, sports and other entertainment. But where did closed captioning come from?  How did it become an integral part of broadcasting in most countries?  Who was instrumental in bringing captioning of films and television to the deaf and hard of hearing?

The Early Days

The deaf and hard of hearing were able to enjoy the movies until 1927 when the “talkies” feature films began.  Until that cc1time, they were able to read the captions inserted between scenes or simply watch the movie and be able to tell what  happening.  Many silent films were “slapstick” and very intuitive.   (Click on Charlie Chaplin’s pic for video). cc2With the advent of “talking pictures”, however, the captions were excluded by directors as an unnecessary interruption in the film, excluding the deaf and hard of hearing audience.  While many attempts were made to re-splice the film to present the captions or place them on another screen nothing was very successful until the late 1940s.  In 1947, Emerson Romero (1900-1972), a deaf actor and cousin to the movie star Cesar Romero, developed the first captioning of a film by putting captions between picture frames. Emerson Romero’s stage name was Tommy Albert one of five deaf actors that appeared in the “heyday” of silent films.  While Albert’s 1947 method to caption motion pictures did not catch on, methods were developed in Belgium in 1949 that used etchings on the films.  Utilizing the more efficient Belgian method, Edmund Burke Boatner, Superintendent of the American School for the Deaf, and Dr. Clarence D. O’Connor (1898-1990), the superintendent of the New York Lexington School for the Deaf , used this Belgian technique to launch Captioned Films for the Deaf.  This small nonprofit company was started with seed money raised by the Junior League of Hartford, Connecticut .  From 1949 to 1958, Captioned Films for the Deaf  captioned and distributed 29 educational and Hollywood films to schools for the deaf around the country. But while Boatner and O’Connor were able to attract Hollywood personalities such as Katherine Hepburn (1907-2003) and Louise Tredwell Tracy (1986-1983) to their board, limited funding for captioning the films and industry concerns about piracy of movies severely restricted their operations, eventually prompting requests for the US federal government to take over the operation of Captioned Films for the Deaf.

Government Funding Made a Big Difference!

Upon funding of Captioned Films for the Deaf in 1958, by an Act of United States Congress (Public Law 85-905), a government agency was created to provide captions to motion pictures and later television.  Beginning in 1959 with $78,000, under the cc8direction of John Gough, a teacher of the deaf and former superintendent of the Oklahoma School for the Deaf with wide business experience, the agency brought Captioned Films to the height of success.  By the early 1960s the agency had been renamed Media for the Handicapped, with an annual budget of millions of dollars for the captioning of all types of films.  While Gough brilliantly expands the scope of the agency with successive laws during the 1960s in the 1960s a young deaf colleague will bring it to new heights.  Dr. Malcom J. Norwood would come to authorize the production, acquisition, and distribution of captioned theatrical, documentary, and educational films and media equipment to schools, clubs, and deaf organizations across America.

Dr. Malcom J. Norwood –  The Father of Closed Captioning

Born in Harford, Connecticut March 16, 1927, he was deafened at the age 5 by measles and scarlet fever. He graduated from the American School for the Deaf in 1943, and ccfrom Gallaudet College in 1949 with an undergraduate degree, a Master’s  Degree in Education in 1957 and an earned Doctor of Education Degree in Information Technology in 1976 at the University of Harford. He also held an Honorary Doctorate from Gallaudet University , awarded in 1988.  He taught at the Texas School for the Deaf, American School for the Deaf and the West Virginia School for the Deaf & Blind.  Dr. Norwood, known as “Mac” to friends, stands out in the deaf and hard of hearing community as “the father of closed captioning.” He is listed as one of the “great deaf Americans” in a book about the 77 greatest deaf achieverscc10 While he was not the first director of the Captioned Films for the Deaf program (now the Described and Captioned Media Program, DCMP), he joined John Gough’s staff in 1962 and eventually became its mainstay and leader, serving as its chief from 1972 until his retirement in 1988. He was the first deaf professional to work at the Department of Education as well as head a major program in that department.  As television developed in the 1950s and 1960s the deaf were virtually left out.  As the head of DCMP, Norwood became a leading advocate for the development of closed captioning on television and was singularly responsible for popularizing the captioning technique now used in television.  First with special caption decoders, and later integrated into the television circuitry.  (Click on the picture for a very informative video of an interview with Dr. Norwood by Karen Brickett from 1979).  Norwood’s pioneering contribution in making television and film accessible to people with disabilities became a beacon for other individuals and companies to follow.   Dr. Malcom J. Norwood died cc5March 22, 1989.



The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) presents that the role of television in American society is broad. From provision of news and entertainment, to thecc11 delivery of education, to broadcasting emergency information, television is a staple in the typical American household and in many public venues. Television programming is no longer limited only to the “tube” and is increasingly available online through streaming apps as well as on webpages.

Further information of the development of captioning can be obtained by following the timeline of its continuing development. As with cc6all things “the mother of invention is necessity”, which certainly applies to the development of captioning.  Those, such as Emerson Romero, with a significant need became inventors and those with vision, such as Boatner, O’Connor, Gough, and Norwood among others were able to turn a Junior League fund raising project in to a full blown movement that brought routine funding to captioning causing it to be used in various in cultures around the world.



Boatner, E. (1980). Captioned Films For the Deaf.  National Association of the Deaf  Retrieved February 15, 2016.

Disability Cinema Coalition (2016).  The Norwood Award for Inclusion Through Technology.  Retrieved February 15, 2016.

Kinner, J. & Kinney, V. (2012). United Utah Organizations of the Deaf. Retrieved February 15, 2016.

National Association of the Deaf (2016). Television and closed captioning. Accessible news information and entertainment. Retrieved February 15, 2016.


Leaf Architect (2016). Folium: Crowdscourcing could help deaf people subtitle their everyday life via gizmodo. The Leaf Project.  Retrieved February 15, 2016.

Mary Miley’s Roaring Twenties (2016).  The first talkie.  Retrieved February 15, 2016.


Brickett, K., (1979). Interview with Malcom J. Norwood.  Retrieved February 15, 2016.

Chaplin, C. (1915).  The Lion’s Cage. Retrieved February 15, 2016.

About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.