Happy Read Captions Across America Day!

“Same-language subtitling doubles the number of functional readers among primary school children.” -Bill Clinton via Nielsen Company

Read Captions Across America (RCAA) day, observed on March 1st 2013, is a celebration of an important yet seldom-acknowledged resource available to anyone with a TV — the use of closed captions to promote literacy in deaf and hearing individuals alike. It is sponsored by the National Association of the Deaf and works in conjunction with the National Education Association’s Read Across America day, also observed on March 1st, the day before Dr. Seuss’ 109th birthday. We sat down with Bill Stark of the Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP), a self-described evangelist for the benefits of watching captioned TV, to talk about the day and its meaning.

Bill’s stance on how to celebrate the day is simple — “Dress up, have fun, be wacky,” says Bill, “Turn those captions on.” RCAA day encourages students to dress up in tall read-and-white hats and whiskers on Friday, in the style of the famed Cat in the Hat, read together, and watch videos of Dr. Seuss books — or anything — with the captions. The event also has an interactive element, and students are encouraged to write birthday cards to Dr. Seuss that include the name of the captioned media title they watched, which they will then send to the DCMP or simply hang around their school.

Indeed, the message RCAA day promotes is a good one. While many emerging readers may see reading as a chore, almost all of them watch TV, sometimes for hours on end. What better way, then, to get kids to read but to incorporate it into something they want to do? Exposure to captioned dialogue has been proven to improve reading, spelling and verbal skills in young readers, as it delivers information both visually and audibly. Nor are captions reserved for TV viewers — many internet videos have captions available, and as of March 31, even more will be required to offer captions, in accordance with new FCC mandates.

Beside teaching literacy in a new way, RCAA day also serves to unify deaf and hearing students through jointly participating in caption-watching, which is too often regarded as a “deaf activity.” In the Stark household, watching TV with the captions on is so engrained in the family protocol that Bill could not imagine watching TV any other way. So why doesn’t everybody do it? “There is a stigma involved, similar to the stigma of wearing a hearing aid,” Bill said, adding that to many, watching TV with captions is an admission of one’s inability to hear.

Yet many deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals frown upon terms such as “inability” and “disability.” Deaf and hard-of-hearing students often spend the entire school day in classrooms, learning and engaging with hearing students, rather than learning in a special-education classroom for part or all of it. When the teacher shows video materials for the class, he or she is faced with the task of not only finding captioned videos (older videos, especially, may not be captioned) and simply remembering to turn those captions on. In a class of 20-30 students, the teacher could easily forget the one or two students who need captions more than the others, and to publicly request captions may be embarrassing for those students. Rather than ostracizing one or several deaf student by turning on the captions “for them,” Bill (who himself is a professional educator) suggests that teacher should always turn on the captions.

Bill has made it his personal mission to promote this simple concept, encouraging fellow teachers to incorporate captions into their lessons, promoting the event through the RCAA website, and even convincing his car dealer, a non-native English speaker, to turn on the captions on his TV to learn the language. He points out that many star athletes in America call a different country home, and often enough, when reporters ask how they are learning English, they often have the same answer: “By watching TV.” Bill is so confident in the benefits of viewing TV programs with the captions on, that he believes captions be burned into the picture for every show, not just optional by pressing the CC button on the remote. “I told you I was an evangelist,” he said.

Lest Mr. Stark be disappointed when Read Captions Across America day has passed, the entire month of March brings a new theme and a new mission for Bill. March is Listening Awareness month, brought to you in part by the lovable spokesperson, fennec fox, and with it, yet another way to watch TV — with audio description!

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