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Islanders fan Gary Noll advocates for closed captioning in sports arenas

Closed captioning at the Prudential Center during a

Closed captioning at the Prudential Center during a Devils game. Credit: Gary Noll

The builders of UBS Arena tout the cutting-edge, state-of-the-art design for the Islanders’ new $1 billion home at Belmont Park, targeted to open in November 2021. Everything from the contactless concessions to the ventilation systems to the scoreboards is said to be the most modern technology.

On-site closed captioning will be available as well, with The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandating that stadiums and arenas be accessible to people with disabilities, including communication access for the deaf and hard of hearing.

It’s this technological aspect that intrigues Islanders Booster Club member Gary Noll, a scientist by trade, the most.

"My closed-captioning advocacy project is like my science project at work, focusing on working together, collaboration and corroboration efforts," Noll, who lives in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, said in a lengthy email exchange with Newsday.

Born deaf to deaf parents, Noll wants the Islanders to set up the most prominently displayed closed-captioning system possible. The tireless effort mirrors others he’s conducted — and continues to conduct — at all the major professional and collegiate sporting venues in the New York/New Jersey area.

"He’s getting a foothold into a market that’s never really been tapped before," said Gary Harding of Halesite, the past president and current executive vice president of the Islanders Booster Club and co-host of Sports Talk New York on WGBB-1240AM/95.9FM. "From the minute I met him, from the minute he sent an email to me, he’s always talking about it."

The National Association of the Deaf has not found securing adequate closed captioning to be an easy battle despite the ADA mandate. But successful lawsuits against the Washington Football Team, filed in 2006 and finalized in 2011; the Ohio State University, filed in 2009 and settled in 2010, and the University of Maryland, filed in 2013 and settled in 2016, set precedents while creating a greater awareness of the issue.

"The vast majority of sports stadiums and arenas do not have captioning access for deaf and hard of hearing fans to understand play-by-play narration, color commentary, team giveaways or other promotions, pregame anthems and activities, emergency notifications, and all other announcements that happen before, during and after games," NAD chief executive officer Howard A. Rosenblum said. "Such failure is a complete denial of access to all deaf and hard of hearing people. Further, many people who can hear tell us often that they would like to see captioning to catch what they may have missed or was garbled through the announcement system.

"The optimal way to make a stadium or arena accessible is to ensure there is large captioning visible to a fan sitting in any seat," Rosenblum added. "Unfortunately, most stadiums or arenas that do have captioning boards have only one or maybe two and they are too small to be comfortably seen unless the fan is sitting very close to one of them."

Still, the affable, gregarious Noll has found organizations gradually becoming more open to his advocacy, even if closed captioning is not something often at the forefront of priorities.

"When technology becomes available, I advocate more," he said. "I think the challenge is to find the right people. The key is patience. I went to many games every calendar year. I stopped by guest services and other departments. They were so nice to me by introducing me to others, recommended names for me to contact. I always ask for a better fan experience, accessibility and to benefit everyone by having closed captioning for those who can and cannot hear.

"I think when I started my advocacy, it was a bit more challenging."

The NAD is compiling data on all sports venues to determine their accessibility to deaf and hard of hearing fans and is expected to issue a ranking of the buildings within the next year. UBS Arena may not be included on the list, given its targeted opening day and the fact that the Islanders are not expected to sign a contract with a closed-captioning vendor until this spring.

But Noll has outlined, both to Newsday and to the Islanders, how he would design it.

In part, he advocates for "big captions" and closed captioning placed on four ribbon boards or scoreboards, just as he pushes for closed captioning to be on the main centerfield scoreboard at Citi Field rather than the smaller boards in leftfield and rightfield.

He added that venues should provide closed captioning on both scoreboards and via hand-held devices. Many venues will provide closed captioning only on hand-held devices that can be borrowed at the site, or via a person’s cellphone. But Noll said it is difficult to monitor the screen while also watching the live action, never mind holding a beverage or food.

Noll also has passed along his recommendations on closed-captioning vendors.

One is VITAC, which has offices in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Canada, has been in business since the early 1980s and is the largest in the U.S. with up to 500 captioners. Another is North Carolina-based Coast 2 Coast Captioning with its one full-time employee, founder Jennifer M. Bonfilio, who trained as a court reporter.

Closed-captioning technology is fairly simple. The venue’s public address feed is transmitted to a remote stenographer through a computer application and the resulting transcription is transmitted back to the stadium or arena with a lag time of three to five seconds.

"One hundred percent, it has grown," Debbie Restall, Vitac’s vice president of sales, said of the closed-captioning industry. "With the regulations now, it’s becoming the new norm. Some leagues have their own app that included closed captioning on the team page. It comes through a smartphone or a mobile device."

"The changes I’ve seen are all positive when it comes to inclusivity for deaf and hard of hearing people. Now it just appears there are more and more companies and corporations and teams that want to be acceptable for people."

Bonfilio worked as the on-site closed captioner at Yankee Stadium when the new ballpark opened in 2009. It was a one-season job obtained through the recommendation of a friend who did closed captioning for the Washington Nationals.

"At that time, it was very unusual," Bonfilio said. "With the Yankees, I was involved in every step: ‘We need to put the captions here, they need to be this size.’ You can offer your opinion, but then they do what they want.

"[Scoreboard] ribbons are highly sought real estate. They’re required to have it, but the requirement doesn’t spell out the details. Ideally, you want captions to be on the big board and those decisions are influenced more by the public.

"Someone like Gary is very vocal, outspoken, and he has a connection with these people and he can say, ‘Oh, no, this is not good enough.’ "

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