9/11: How VITAC Reached Across the Aisle to Make It Accessible


Anyone who remembers September 11, 2001 recalls many of the same experiences of fear and uncertainty that seemed to hang over the nation on that agonizingly long day. They remember the first attack and the suspicion that an apparent plane crash may be something more sinister, then the confirmation of that suspicion as the second, third, and fourth planes crashed. They recall people of all ages abandoning work and school to watch and re-watch looped footage of the attacks in hopes of a new development that might help them make sense of an otherwise senseless day.

One also remembers the stories of unity and heroism. Tales of first responders rushing into the burning towers inspired us, as did the bravery of the flight 93 passengers who thwarted a possible strike on a more critical target than a rural Pennsylvania field. After the decade of debating whether we should require the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, Americans galvanized under the stars and stripes, planting flags in their gardens, flocking to police and fire academies, and donating blood at the Red Cross. Pride in America overtook the country to an extent not seen since World War II, and the sentiment was no different abroad: Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, pledged to stand “full square beside the U.S.” and the prominent French newspaper Le Monde famously ran the headline “We are all Americans.”

One story of unity that occurred away from the front lines came from VITAC, which captioned an immense amount of unplanned work as the major network stations went to 24-hour coverage, but also assisted its competitors through their technical difficulties to ensure that the entire event was accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In short, caption connections failed for every provider captioning the New York stations — except for VITAC.

It is not difficult to imagine how the attacks affected captions: dishes atop the World Trade Center buildings, including the iconic 360-foot antenna of the North Tower, which had held critical equipment for nearly every local news station in New York City, were gone. Many of the communication lines that weren’t destroyed were overwhelmed by the increase in activity amidst the chaos. What was clear was that no caption provider except VITAC had a direct feed into the different networks on September 11th and in the days that followed.

This fact alone was a victory on a day that needed every victory it could get. VITAC Founder Joe Karlovits described how “through the brilliance of our engineering staff, we were able to keep a hot connection into New York…I still, to this day, don’t understand why our com lines into New York held.” As Tim Taylor, VP, Engineering, explains it, VITAC was not scheduled to caption the three major network stations that day, since networks like NBC and CBS air mostly prerecorded programming in between their morning shows and their evening news broadcasts. However, by never disconnecting the modem connection to the respective network encoders, VITAC was able to keep a steady stream of captions throughout the disaster. “To the best of my knowledge, there was not any loss of captions,” said Tim. “I could only imagine what would have gone through [deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers’] minds if they could not read what was transpiring.”

But the amount of programming was overwhelming for even VITAC, the largest caption provider in the country. To ensure that all of the news coverage of the national tragedy was accessible to the 50 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans, VITAC allowed its competitors, unable to connect to the various New York encoders even days after the fact, to borrow its connections. As Tim Taylor explained, “We quickly put together a system where NCI or WGBH could dial into use [our systems] and we would patch the data over to the modems connected to the networks.” This went on for two days, when a small degree of normalcy had been reestablished and the connections could be put in place again. But it was in that moment of chaos on September 11th, that VITAC had done its part for the industry and for 50 million Americans who rely on captions.

These qualities — ingenuity and compassion in crisis — are part of what define this country and shepherd us through our greatest achievements and worst tragedies. In celebrating the heroics of the Americans who encountered 9/11 firsthand, it is VITAC’s humble honor to have made the coverage of a inconceivable day accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals across America.

by Carlin Twedt