This is the story of Emerson Romero and the birth of closed captions.
Romero (pictured above) was an actor in the age of silent film. Under his stage name of Tommy Albert, he appeared in more than 24 two-reel comedies between 1926 and 1928.
But then talkies came along.
While Charlie Chaplin and others transitioned to making movies with sound, Romero couldn’t adapt quite so easily. Almost overnight, Romero was out of a job.
Romero was deaf.
Silent movies were enjoyed equally by deaf and non-deaf audiences alike. Actors used exaggerated expressions and physical movement, while intertitles (title cards) conveyed any essential dialogue or exposition.
However, filmmakers considered intertitles as interruptions to the moving pictures audiences had paid to see and used them as sparingly as possible.
But while the film industry saw the lack of sound as a technical problem to be solved, for deaf audiences, the lack of sound was a feature, not a bug.
A 1935 study found that 6% of Americans had a significant hearing impairment. The arrival of sound meant that potentially millions of Americans were no longer able to enjoy the movies.
In 1947, with no sign of the studios acknowledging the issue, Romero decided he would make Hollywood movies accessible once more. He began buying up film prints with his own money and physically splicing captions between the frames.
Gradually, Romero built up a film library for deaf people, renting them out to deaf schools and community groups.
As a first attempt at providing captions for the deaf, Romero’s was a simple-but-primitive solution. Splicing the captions into the film meant the sound would cut out every time a caption appeared on screen. This didn’t matter for deaf audiences, but the experience would have been jarringly unpleasant for anyone who could hear the film.
Romero eventually stopped due to lack of funds, but his work inspired others to develop more sophisticated methods of captioning films. In 1958, the Captioned Film Act became law in the U.S., providing federal funding for the captioning of feature films.
It took a deaf silent movie actor to remind content producers that not everyone consumes content in the same way.
How to Romero-ise your social media
While Romero had to splice in accessibility, you have all the tools you need to make your posts accessible from the beginning.
- When ideating your posts, write down the alt text before you start creating. That way you’re describing what you’re trying to achieve for your entire audience
- For any video with sound, add in captions, text or stickers so that you can be understood without volume (remember! Most videos on social are viewed on mute, so you should be doing this anyway!)
- Keep your language simple. It helps those who don’t share your language or those with dyslexia to understand what you’re saying or writing
But if you’re looking for a simple way to add alt text to imagery on social media…
Well, you don’t have many options for simple. It’s a fairly painful process to add alt text on Instagram, arguably where it’s needed most.
However – when you schedule your posts in Sked Social, you’ll be able to add alt text to your imagery in two clicks. You can try it for yourself for 7 days completely free right here.