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How a deaf actor brought media accessibility to Hollywood

  • 3 Minutes
The story of media accessibility stretches back nearly a century. It’s a story of how technology and innovation can leave people behind – and how it’s often left to those who can’t access the content to solve what many content creators don’t even consider to be a problem.

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.

Why?

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.

Intertitle from the silent movie The Kid by Charlie Chaplin in 1921, which reads ‘Pardon me, you dropped something.’
Intertitle from The Kid (1921)

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.

Old black and white photo of a man editing a strip of film with a pair of scissors.

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.

A screenshot from an old video of Emerson Romero explaining his process for splicing closed captions into films.
Emerson Romero explains his idea for splicing captions into films in this archive video. You can view the full one-minute video on YouTube.

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.

For example:

  • 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.

Photo of Jonathan CrossfieldJonathan Crossfield

Jonathan calls himself a storyteller because freelance writer, editor, content marketer, journalist, copywriter and speaker wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. His articles on digital marketing have won a couple of awards, but they were so long ago it seems boastful to keep mentioning it in bios. Jonathan lives in the Blue Mountains, perfecting the art of writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Twitter @Kimota.

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