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Television and the Deaf

By Alana Aninipot

Television and The Deaf

Television gained mainstream popularity in the 1950s. Almost every American household had become enamored with the small box broadcasting videos and sounds. However, a significant part of the population was not able to fully enjoy this new wonder, the Deaf. Until the 1970s, when television companies began putting the needs of the Deaf and hard of hearing into consideration.

At this time, the National Bureau of Standards began experimenting with technology for captioning; In 1971, the first "National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired" was held and two new closed captioning programs, which only worked when specifically set up for Deaf and hard of hearing at-home televisions were first shown (NCI*). A year later, while closed captioning was still being worked on, open captions were making an appearance on television. In 1972, the program "The French Chef" was broadcasted on PBS became the first show made accessible to the Deaf. Soon after in 1973, an ABC-TV newscast was rebroadcasted daily with captions as a way to make the televised news more accessible (NCI*).

A decade later, closed captioning programs were living in Deaf households across the country and working as they should. With this new bout of access to television, hearing television producer Sheldon Altfeld decided that the Deaf should be seen on this nationwide platform. After working with NBC in 1979 in making a special on Deaf entertainment called "SIGN OF OUR TIMES" and recording 40 hours of teaching ASL programming (Altfeld, 2016), Altfeld and his team (composed of members of the Deaf community) decided to create the first sign language based cable television channel. The channel named The Silent Network began officially in 1981 broadcasting sign language programming to about 2 million homes and expanded to 14 million homes about 9 years later in 1990 (Altfeld, 2016). Also at that time, Altfeld made an executive decision to sell the network and the ASL programming, essentially, ended on the channel.

Although The Silent Network had ended, many talented members of the Deaf community had become more well known. Today, the Deaf are being represented on television more, notably on the ABC Family drama series Switched at Birth. The series follows two teenage girls who were accidentally switched in the hospital and become great friends in an unlikely way. Daphne, one of the girls, is Deaf and attends a fiction school for the Deaf where many other Deaf and hard of hearing characters are introduced (Lacob, 2013). The show brings to light historic Deaf events, such as the Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University, and other topics members of the Deaf community experience within its plot lines. Many of the shows actors are Deaf, including Katie Leclerc, Sean Berdy and most notably Marlee Matlin, who is a well known Deaf actress.

Another Deaf actor who got his start on the show is Nyle DiMarco, and he has expanded his outreach since then. DiMarco, after playing a small role on the show, went on to become a contestant on the reality show America's Next Top Model and eventually winning. He then went on to Dancing With The Stars, a mainstream celebrity dance competition, where he also won, becoming the first Deaf person to win in each show (GQ Bespoke, 2017). DiMarco is now an extremely successful model and activist for the Deaf community. His participation and winning of two "mainstream" reality competition shows have given representation and exposure of Deaf people to at home television viewers, who may have not known anything about the community before hand.

As we know today, shows are no longer limited to our televisions but now may be streamed over the internet for easy and quick viewing. A new show will be streaming soon through Showtime Now called "The Chances" is written by and starring Deaf actors Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. The series was first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2017 as a series of shorts and was immediately picked up by the streaming service after harboring great reviews (Prudom, 2017). The show is especially liked because it reportedly includes an "authentic portrayal of the Deaf community" (Prudom, 2017) while the plot line does not center around the characters' Deafness. With all of these new platforms and expansions, hopefully the Deaf become more visible within the mainstream, especially on television.

Works Cited:

History of Closed Captioning. National Captioning Institute Online. National Captioning Institute. Retrieved 12, May 2017:
*This source is from the official National Captioning Institute (NCI) website.
[Researcher's note: I emailed the company to find who wrote the "history" page and when, but received no response. However, I feel the source is a reliable account of the history as it is on the official site.* - A.A.]

Altfeld, Sheldon. (2016, Apr. 20). Deaf History - The Silent Network - A Deaf Cable Channel. Verywell Online. Verywell. Retrieved 12, May. 2017: <>

Lacob, Jace. (2013, Feb, 28) ABC Family's ‘Switched at Birth' ASL Episode Recalls Gallaudet Protest. The Daily Beast Online. The Daily Beast. Retrieved 12, May. 2017: <>

GQ Bespoke (Sponsor Content) . (2017. Mar. 29) How This Model, Actor, Activist is Breaking the Silence. GQ Magazine Online - Sponsored Content. GQ Magazine. Retrieved 12, May. 2017: <

Prudom, Laura. (2017, Apr. 27).This Shouldn't be News, but There's Finally a Show Created by and Starring Deaf Actors. Mashable Entertainment USA. Mashable. Retrieved 12, May. 2017: < >





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