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My new TV thinks I’m hearing

April 17, 2015

by Nancy Creighton

My new TV is not bad, it’s perfectly serviceable. But it’s got a built-in assumption– that television viewers are hearing people. In these days of diversity, respecting the disabled, and universal design principles, such an assumption is indefensible.

The old RCA and me.

The old RCA and me.

The old RCA TV I’ve been using gave up the ghost recently. It was an excellent TV in its day– built-in VCR, and built-in closed caption chip (that wasn’t mandated until 1990; thanks go to NAD, NCI, TDI, FCC and others for making CC a reality). I tried for one day to live without TV, but these days, I’m hooked. So my brother and I went out shopping for a cheap digital TV that was big enough for me to read the captions from across the room. We ended up getting a brand called Insigna from Best Buy, a brand I’d never heard of before and can’t recommend for deaf viewers.

What’s great it is has a button on the remote specifically for toggling the CC on and off. What’s awful is that every time we turn the TV off, the CC turns off, too.

What’s worse is that when we turn the TV back on, just pressing the CC button doesn’t turn on the captions. It took awhile to figure this out– the words that come up on the screen say the captions are on, but they aren’t. Not until we cycle through the three settings: CC ON, CC ON WHEN MUTED, CC OFF, and finally get back to the CC ON setting do the captions turn on. And it takes a few beats for them to come up so we’re sure it’s working.

On a daily basis, it’s annoying, but livable. Just hit a button four times instead of once to turn on the closed captions. There are worse things to live with. But step back and look at the larger picture– it’s another example of institutionalized discrimination. “Institutional discrimination is built into the structure itself. Thus it is more covert and more tenacious. It can occur regardless of the desires or intentions of the people perpetuating it.” (Freeman, Woman in Society). While Dr Freeman’s article focuses on women and employment, her statement can apply in many situations, including design and manufacturing decisions.

I don’t know why the manufacturers of my new television designed the closed captioning function to wipe out the information when turned off, or why it takes four presses of the CC button to turn it on again. It can’t be difficult– my RCA was over 20 years old. Maybe it was cheaper? By how much? Perhaps they just didn’t think about it. But then, they thought about it enough to include a CC ON WHEN MUTED function. Do they think that hearing and deaf people don’t watch TV together?

Some televisions, more expensive brands, allow the customer to set the size and color of the captions. There are a lot of possibilities for customer control of the captions, but most television manufacturers don’t take advantage of the digital capabilities.

On a cheap TV, I wasn’t expecting to customize my captions, but I did expect them to stay on until changed. That’s not unreasonable. It’s good business.


Not up on the acronyms?

FCC: Federal Communication Commission, Closed Captioning on Television

NAD: National Association of the Deaf, Making Sounds Visible

NCI: National Captioning Institute, History of Closed Captioning

TDI: Telecommunications for the Deaf, Media and Information Technology: Access Milestones

Further Reading:

The Seven Principles of Universal Design

Freeman, Jo. “Institutional Discrimination.” Institutional Discrimination. Accessed April 17, 2015.

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