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Media Accessibility Information, Guidelines and Research

Captioned Films for the Deaf: My Perspective

By Len Novick

Len Novick

Len Novick was executive director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) 1995-2013. During his tenure, Mr. Novick has taken a lead role in directing public awareness and professional education activities and initiatives. Prior to joining NFID, Mr. Novick was vice president for external business development at the National Captioning Institute (1986-1994) and executive director of the Conference of Educational Administrators Serving the Deaf and the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf (CAID) (1984-1986). He also served as project director of the federally-supported Captioned Films for the Deaf program (1978-1985). He began his professional career as a media specialist at St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf (Brooklyn, NY). Mr. Novick received his B.A. from Brooklyn College, his M.A. from Columbia University, and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies in educational administration from Brooklyn College.

To me, the Captioned Films for the Deaf (CFD) program was not just about extending access to entertainment and educational films to deaf people. It had a broader scope, particularly in the educational materials area. I look at its history from the perspective of the grassroots, down to the individual school for the deaf in the early 1970s. Through the CFD program, a plethora of materials were made available, free of charge. Filmstrips and transparency sets were among the most popular at my school. Most effective were the Visual Language transparency sets, created and produced by Robert F. Newby, media director at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. (Bob passed away in early 2016).

Materials were also made available from the Regional Media Centers for the Deaf. These centers were operated from 1966 through the early 1970s through HEW/Bureau of Education for the Handicapped/Media Services and Captioned Films contracts with universities. They included: 1) The Northeast Regional Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, with Dr. Raymond Wyman as its director. Its focuses included instructional materials development and technology training, with a special emphasis on the overhead projector; 2) The Midwest Regional Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, directed by Dr. Robert Stepp. This center conducted annual symposiums, and preformed production/adaptation of media. The proceedings of the symposia were published by The American Annals of the Deaf. I can attest to the usefulness of these proceedings for media specialists in the field; 3) The Southern Regional Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Directed by Dr. William Jackson, its focus was on educational television and video; 4) The Southwest Regional Center at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces was directed by Hubert D. Summers. Its focus was on programmed learning, and it also conducted summer-long workshops for school faculty.

CFD also funded a materials lending project focused on education of multi-handicapped as well as deaf children. This project was initially at Ohio State University, and subsequently at Indiana University's AV Center, directed by Dr. Ed Richardson. Day-to-day operations were managed by Duane Straub, assisted by Lloyd Andersen.

The program operated under a series of contracts between HEW (later the Department of Education or DOED) and the Conference of Executives of American Schools for the Deaf, later Conference of Educational Administrators Serving the Deaf (CEASD). Dr. Howard Quigley served as the organization's first executive director starting in the mid- 1960s. He was succeeded by Hugh Summers in 1977. Joe Domich was the captioned films project director in those years. In 1978, Len Novick was hired by CEASD as the project's assistant director. In October 1979, he and Joe Domich switched roles.

The last in the series of contracts with CEASD ended in 1980. In response to a new DOED Request for Proposal (RFP), the new national office corporate entity of CEASD, the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf (CAID), and the American Annals of the Deaf submitted a comprehensive proposal. This entity, named the Associations for Education of the Deaf (AED), renamed the previous Captioned Films for the Deaf Distribution Center (CFDDC) to the Special Materials Project (SMP). The project had several distinct activities, some of them interlaced:

  • Entertainment Films
    • » Captioning
    • » Scheduling and circulation
  • Educational Films
    • » Evaluation and selection
    • » Captioning workshops
    • » Lesson guide workshops
    • » Circulation through 65 film depositories
  • Materials for the Handicapped
    • » Distribution

The educational films evaluation and selection activity was conducted through an arrangement with the Rochester School for the Deaf. The coordinator for this activity, Salvatore Parlato, was housed there as a school employee, and CFD reimbursed the school for his time.

Several multi-day workshops were held each year, where teachers from schools for the deaf around the country would gather to screen and rate educational films for their suitability. At the end of the cycle, films recommended to DOED that were chosen for purchase were captioned at a summer-long workshop. Lesson guides were also prepared, and these were distributed in bound volumes across the U.S. These caption writing/lesson guide workshops were held at schools for the deaf in rotation around the country.

In 1982, SMP ended its relationship with the Rochester School for the Deaf and Parlato. Lloyd Andersen became the evaluation coordinator, a position he took up again in the early 1990s under the aegis of the National Association of the Deaf.

SMP was committed to modernizing and streamlining the distribution systems for both the educational captioned films and entertainment films. The entertainment collection, mostly 16mm prints of Hollywood features with open captions, was available to registered deaf clubs and school programs. Captioned films was the primary vehicle for deaf persons to enjoy mainstream Hollywood fare; this was long before the introduction of captioned television in the U.S. As head of the government's program, Mac Norwood was able to successfully obtain very reasonable licensing fees from the Hollywood studios. As an aside, Mac Norwood used to tell a story that he would often be asked why there were no X-rated movies available in the collection. Mac's response was classic: "I would just respond by stating that those films did not need captions to be enjoyed."

The entertainment collection was housed in a warehouse-type facility in downtown Indianapolis. It was a labor-intensive, two-shift operation, with many of the employees being graduates of the Indiana School for the Deaf. The operation was overseen by Val Brummett, Jr.

With DOED funding and oversight into the procurement process, SMP purchased a DEC PDP-11 series mini computer system along with specially modified software developed by a Halifax-based company, Dymaxion Research Ltd. When the system came online in 1981, it resulted in cost savings and overall efficiency.

Another aside: In 1982, Mac was receiving complaints from deaf clubs in Hawaii regarding film shipments arriving late to islands, often after the planned showing at a club meeting. He called me to discuss the situation (using his assistant, Ginny Lewis, as his interpreter) and I said, mostly in jest, that I would be willing to go to Hawaii to try to straighten things out. I was startled to hear him say that he thought that a good idea, and that I should arrange for the trip. Having vacationed there twice in the 1970s, it was a great treat for me, my wife, and two young children to get back to Hawaii. I obtained a letter from DOED verifying that I was director of a government-funded project, and with that documentation obtained lodging at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Honolulu for about $50 per night. I met with representatives from various deaf clubs at a public library, and we came up with solutions to the shipping problems. I extended the trip at my own expense into a week-long vacation in paradise. One night, several days after the meeting, and as we were getting the kids ready for bed, the front desk called our room to say that there was a group in the lobby that wanted to see me. When I arrived in the lobby, I was greeted by the eight people I had met with, who wanted to again thank me for trying to fix the problem. To me, this bore out the importance of the captioned films program for deaf people during that era.

The educational captioned films distribution system was formed as 65 free standing depositories, mostly located in larger residential schools for the deaf. These depositories serviced other schools and programs in their geographic area. However, the system was inefficient in that film requests could only be fulfilled from one depository; there was no lending between depositories or servicing of requests beyond a depository's assigned clients.

In the early 1980s, AED obtained a DOED grant to develop an inter-depository loan system in support of SMP utilizing early microcomputer technology. Another innovation was the development of a film booking and inventory control system to facilitate bookings and better track materials usage. This system ran on Apple II+ microcomputers. Both of these early, initial uses of microcomputer technology are detailed in the presentation I made to the 1983 media utilization symposium in Lincoln.

From the mid-1970s until 1982 Ernie Hairston served as the project's contract officer for HEW/DOED. He was succeeded by Dr. Paul Andereck. Andereck's MO was to advocate for change, often for change's sake. At that time, Dr. Leo Persellin, a consultant to SMP and other DOED contract activities, uttered a prophetic statement: "SMP will not survive this."

At Andereck's instigation, DOED contracted with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to investigate the existing captioned films distribution systems and make recommendations for change. Despite SMP's full cooperation, I perceived AIR's response to be a hatchet job.

A two-day meeting was held at which time AIR reported on its findings. Among the entities represented at the meeting was the fledgling National Captioning Institute (NCI). NCI's president, John Ball, made a provocative spontaneous statement, disparaging captioned films as an obsolete delivery system, and urging DOED to shift funds into captioned television.

An aside: Based on this meeting, I recognized that John Ball had a volatile personality. I was later to see it first hand and up close when I went to work for him at NCI in 1986. However, my next encounter with Ball was around 1984, at the inauguration of Gallaudet University's new president, Jerry Lee. I attended, representing CEASD as its executive director. For the academic procession, representatives lineup and march into the auditorium based on the founding year of the institution they represent. I found myself chatting rather amiably with John Ball until it was time to take our assigned places. When I told John that I was somewhere near the front, recognizing CEASD's 1868 founding, his jaw dropped rather conspicuously when he discovered that NCI's 1979 founding placed him at the end of the line.

Another aside about Mac Norwood: Mac could be a wily political operative. After Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, a series of budget restructuring proposals were advanced. Sending funds to states as "block grants" was a way for conservatives to shrink the federal footprint on social programs in the U.S. There was concern that the captioned films program, with its meager budget, would get caught up in this and have its DOED funding eliminated. Mac knew that Reagan's assistant education secretary for special education, Madeline Will, was essentially a political appointee and would toe the administration's line. Mac met clandestinely with several professional groups, including CEASD, to solicit help in combating the block grant concept in deafness-related DOED program activities. These groups successfully "lobbied" Congress through Capitol Hill visits and budget testimony.

Based on the AIR recommendations, the 1983 DOED procurement for captioned films broke the SMP into two separate contracts – one for distribution of both the educational and entertainment film collections, and a second contract focused on the evaluation, selection, caption writing, and lesson guide activities for educational films.

A final Mac Norwood aside: In the spring of 1983, Mac asked that Hugh Summers and I stop by his office. After speaking to us for a few minutes, he said he had a meeting to go to and we should wait there for him. On his long conference table, which was always strewn with piles of paper, open and face up, was a draft of the two RFPs that DOED was preparing. It became obvious to us that Mac had done this in order to give us a heads up as to what was coming.

Unfortunately for CEASD and AED, the Florida-based Modern Talking Picture Service (MTPS) promised cost savings based on scalability, and although the scoring on our technical proposal was superior, MTPS won out because of a lower budget. The final decision was not known to us until the last day of the old contract, September 30, 1983. I received a call in the late morning to come down to DOED. When I got there I was told that I was to sign a contract for the evaluation part, but that we had lost the other procurement. It was a wrenching experience, and I returned to our offices in Silver Spring to tell many on the staff that they had lost their jobs, with no notice.

The loss of a large part of its DOED contract work sent AED and its member organizations into a financial tailspin. In early July 1984, Hugh Summers was replaced as executive director. I assumed the role of acting administrator of AED, CEASD, and CAID, as well as retaining the directorship of the captioned films contract activity. DOED cut the three-year contract short after two years, and let a new RFP in mid-1985. The activity was awarded to MTPS, thus ending, after 19 years, the CEASD's role in helping to develop the captioned films activity.

My primary responsibility was to bring the organizations out of a financial morass. I was named executive director in April 1985, but after having staving off the financial crisis, the AED board decided to bring in a fresh face in mid-1986. I subsequently moved across the Potomac to join the National Captioning Institute (NCI).

NCI had received DOED support in the early 1980s, during captioned television's "chicken and egg" phase. It was difficult to sell caption decoders when there were few captioned programs available; it was also difficult to convince TV networks and syndicators to pay for captioning with a meager audience able to receive it.

During my tenure at NCI (1986-1994), we succeeded in greatly expanding the service.

In 1987, DOED began issuing RFPs for grant activities designed to increase captioned programming. These grants focused on discrete programming segments: national news, local news, sports, syndicated programming, daytime program – all areas where there was a dearth of captioned programming available. NCI's approach was to foster cooperative funding arrangements with program providers, and this proved to be a successful formula for winning several large grants.

While at NCI, I formulated and negotiated its first indirect cost proposal to DOED. The result was a windfall of funds owed to NCI from prior years captioning.

Federal support for captioned films was initiated in 1958 under P.L. 85-905. That law was rolled into P.L. 94-142, the landmark Education for the Handicapped Act (EHA) of 1975. In 1990, NCI was asked to review draft language that congressional staff had prepared as part of amendments to EHA. I was astonished to discover that the underlying language supporting captioning contained reference to "film" only, with no mention of captioned television, which by that time had existed as a service for almost a decade. Working with congressional staffers, we had language inserted into what became P.L. 101-476 that firmly established authorization for federal support of captioned television. That law also changed EHA's name to Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA).

In 1989, NCI embarked on a technology development initiative aimed at greatly expanding the audience for captioned TV. Since 1981, captioning technology was available only to those purchasing a set-top caption decoder for several hundred dollars. The key to reaching a mass audience and embedding universal acceptance of the service in the eyes of programmers was to create a single caption chip that could be easily and cost effectively built into every TV. NCI chose ITT to develop the chip, and simultaneously began working with Congress to have language enacted requiring TV manufacturers to have caption decoder technology built into new TVs.

With remarkable speed for such an initiative, Congressional buy-in was achieved in one session of Congress. Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts sponsored legislation in the House of Representatives. On the Senate side, the initiative had the strong support of the then chair of the Commerce Committee, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Senator John McCain of Arizona. NCI arranged for several key witnesses to testify on behalf of the legislation, including actresses Marlee Matlin, Linda Bove, and Nanette Fabray. In October 1990, Congress enacted the Television Decoder Circuitry Act, which required all TVs with screens 13 inches or larger to have built in decoder technology. That law took effect in 1993, and 23 years later captioned television is a given, known to bar patrons and airport passengers as a convenience; known to persons with hearing impairments as a key to the stream of American culture.

As we discussed this phenomenon at NCI in the early 1990s, I coined a phrase that I find meaningful after more than two decades. We were able to successfully "mainstream the technology" of captioning, which was developed originally for deaf persons, to an accepted feature available to all TV viewers in the U.S.

Tags: history, dcmp, captioning

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