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The man who listened to those who could not.

Vincent DeLuca recalls bringing closed captioning to nightly news

Created date

January 24th, 2012

In a world where new technological gadgets spring into the marketplace with breathtaking speed, it s almost unimaginable that 25 years ago, the deaf community lacked the technology to understand what was being reported on the nightly news. Working as the president and general manager of WOKR-TV 13, Rochester, N.Y. s ABC affiliate in the late 1980s, Vincent DeLuca changed everything.

Plea for help

Home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), Rochester s deaf population in the late 1980s exceeded 50,000 people. Many were students eager to embrace the latest technology to improve their quality of life. In 1986, a group of students from the NTID paid an impromptu visit to Vincent at WOKR with a plea for real-time closed captioning, a process that provides dialogue, narration, songs, and sound effects in the form of subtitles along the bottom of the television screen. I always maintained an open-door policy, says Vincent, who lives at Ashby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va. When I heard that there were students who wanted to meet with me, I was eager to hear what they had to say. Immediately, Vincent was intrigued by what he learned. The students told me they were concerned, he says. Important information reported on our news program was lost to them, most notably, information that directly affected their lives. They used the example of a snowstorm. They said, How will we know when dangerous weather is coming? Your viewers hear the warnings, but we do not. I knew in that moment that I would do what I could to help them.

The ripple effect

At the time of the students visit, only three stations in the country, located in Boston, Mass., Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, Pa., closed-captioned their news. Rochester would be next. The first thing I did was seek out information about closed captioning and how it could become a reality at the station, says Vincent. He began to work closely with NTID s Instructional Television and Media Services Department. They helped us learn what the station needed to accomplish both technologically and logistically in order to make this work, he says. I also knew that in order to make it a reality we would need money, and I knew exactly where to go. Vincent contacted Wegmans, the Rochester-based grocery chain. The company is a role model when it comes to community involvement, he says. I knew that if I showed them how important this project was to the community they would be on board. And I was right. With Wegmans financial support, he needed one more piece to the puzzle. In the 1980s, viewing closed captioning on the TV screen was not as simple as hitting a button on the remote control, as it is today. Deaf viewers needed to hook a decoder unit to their television. Vincent had to ensure that anyone who needed a decoder would have one. He approached Rochester s local cable company for support. Their response was immediate and generous, says Vincent. They agreed to provide decoders, free of charge, to all of their deaf customers, and, at cost, to other community members. With that agreement in place, we now had what we needed to make closed captioning a reality in Rochester.

The night that changed everything

On October 19, 1987, at 6 p.m., WOKR s nightly news began with Vincent appearing on screen, speaking, but not being heard. In this way, Vincent introduced closed captioning to the community. With the audio resuming, he explained to his viewers that what they had just witnessed was what his deaf viewers experience every day. WOKR then proceeded with its news program, with closed captioning, available for the first time. And with that, WOKR became the first TV station in New York State to use real-time closed captioning during the news. We made the project a priority at the station, says Vincent. In every way, it was a labor of love. Immediately, an outpouring of thanks and gratitude swept over the station. Even now, 25 years later, Vincent tears up when speaking of the response he received. I m an emotional man, he says. It s an amazing feeling to know that you were able to help, in whatever small way you could, when you were asked. Bringing closed captioning to WOKR was a highlight of my career.