Transforming Captions

hearing impairedBy Karla Fetrow

I have survived once again the bottle rockets red glare, fireworks bursting in air, the four wheelers kicking up dust and the neighbors we don’t trust except once a year when we all come together for a little patriotic celebration. In the interest of memorable, I participated in all the usual glories that have become as much a solemn ritual and tradition as decorating the Christmas tree, yet one aspect stands out. My son and his one day to become his wife took me to the movies. Not that he had never taken me to the movies before. There are some that absolutely must be seen on the big screen in order to relish their graphic action. With this in mind, I sat in a small, stiff backed chair, longing for enough room to curl my legs up under me, and politely waiting until the end of the movie to pee, so I could view the awesome advances in modern technology in such movies Indiana Jones, Star Trek and any Marvel Comic Book related super hero. These are obligatory movies, watched more for their explosive consequences than half a mind to any real plot line. The movie they were taking me to see wasn’t exactly one that was high in my list of “must see” as it was the new “Transformers”, but they said they had a surprise for me. One of the theaters had started something new in our wonderful City of Anchorage, which occasionally demonstrates a little consideration for others. The showing the kids took me to had captions.

What a novel idea in a society whose only solution for the deaf has been to try and make them hear better. The program directive of this mentality is, if you can’t hear, put on a hearing aid. The problem is, hearing aids work well only for those whose eardrums have been damaged. The aids are designed so they bypass the drums and deliver sounds directly to the nerves that translate these different vibrations into categories of words and noises. The only thing they do for nerve loss damage is amplify the sounds received by the living nerves. This causes the live nerves to work over-time, generally sending them to an early death. Have you ever heard ringing in your ears when you went to bed at night? If you have, these are the nerve endings screaming in pain after a day of listening to noises too great for their endurance. This is what a nerve damaged person goes through every night after using a hearing aid. My deafness is a nerve loss, with eighty percent deafness on my right side, and a thirty percent random nerve loss on the other. Because I miss a few tones in all the pitches, amplifications are distorted, carrying machine noises, clattering object, pencils dropping, even foot steps well above the sounds of human voices.

The theater owners were a little cautious about their captions as they didn’t wish to annoy the movie viewers who found distaste in the distraction of words flying across the screen, interfering with the graphic eye feast. They didn’t place the captions in little white boxes like they do for television, VHS and DVD’s. They were pale yellow, and could barely be seen on light colored backgrounds, although they showed up nicely in the evening shots.

Still, I discovered myself falling into the lazy, comfortable habit that began when captions became a part of media technology, of reading; when I was able to at least; what the characters said instead of trying to lip read the more obscure phrases; the dramatic whisper or the words spoken gravely within a two-dimensional background of noise and conflict. For the first time, I was able to “hear” what the machines had to say. The first thought that came to my mind was that the Transformers had the best lines. While reflecting on this peculiar role reversal, it occurred to me that this must be the reason the era that followed the Marvel comic book generation of Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and a host of other Super Heroes, was so captivated by the Transformers. The love affair once embodied by man and dog had been taken over by a new bonding of man and personality driven machine. Beginning with the first robot whose only articulation was a “beep”, the apprehension over evil artificial intelligence has been replaced with a more human and endearing persona than our own. It actually seemed a pity to me that the main story line focused on the romantic involvement of our human hero, who is really terribly bland without his machines, instead of developing out the humor and personalities of the transformers.

Seeing an action movie with captions changed my perceptions of going to the big screen for the sake of the fast action. I actually began squirming with restlessness during the graphic storm that bombarded my eyes and the entire sequence of exploding jets, trampled buildings, dizzying spectacles of flying machine parts seemed an inconsequential and very thick padding for a rather simple and predictable plot.

On the way home, my two charming hosts were unusually quiet about the actual movie. Usually, they would have been comparing this latest escapade of the Transformers to the first production, but instead, they had much to say about the scarcely visible captions. They are such dears. My son was raised on mom’s insistence in programming captions into the television, and grew accustomed to having the little boxes flash across the screen. He admits that though he has perfectly good hearing, the flashing words have helped him in his awareness and appreciation of dialog. When he first introduced me to his girlfriend and her family, they found it just a little disturbing at first to program their shared movies into captions, but soon adjusted. If the television is on when I walk through the door for a visit, nobody even has to say anything to the remote control holder anymore. Whatever is being viewed is switched immediately into captions.

I have a feeling if the theaters expand the policy of providing captions at the big screens to movies whose sometimes very crucial elements lie in dialog, I will have to change my own policy of only going to the big screen when they have fast action and graphics. Movies in general had never captivated me like a good book, and I was always just a little puzzled by the great enthusiasm for most of them. The caption industry has opened my outlook to a whole different perception of viewing. The most electrical movie watching experience in my life was the first time I watched “The Godfather” with captions. I had always known it was a good movie. I’d watched it several times with friends and family members. But when I read the dialog, I realized it was a great movie.

I hope they continue to offer dates at the movies for the hearing impaired. I also hope they change the color of the captions to something a little easier to see. That yellow was nearly transparent. The only people who attended the late night showing we opted to were those who were hearing impaired or those who were accustomed to being around people who need to read captions. It wouldn’t have been hard, I’m sure, to make the captions a little easier to see. They do it all the time with sub-titled movies. In fact, while I’m on the subject, it wouldn’t be all that difficult for the American public to get used to allowing captions for the hearing impaired. The deaf aren’t the only ones who would receive a bonus. Those who are able to read captions while watching the action evolve the screen, can turn down the volume of their televisions to a whisper, saving their ears from nerve trauma at night. Those who are adept at reading captions, find it easier to appreciate the sub-titles of foreign films, build some language skills and understandings of foreign languages, and to pay attention to important dialog. Just because the hearing impaired don’t appear handicapped doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed the same considerations given other physical dysfunctions. How much more enriching if they could naturally enjoy the recreational activity with others of viewing movies or television wherever they are, and truthfully, wouldn’t it be beneficial to everyone?