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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: Hooray for Cora Laird of Iowa who complained about how difficult it is to hear the dialogue over the noisy background sounds that many television shows feel are necessary. To her list, may I add: waterfalls, street traffic, but mostly -- background music. (In some cases I have concluded the dialogue is secondary to the music, since there is no way I can hear what is being said!) I also wear a hearing aid.

Your suggestion to write to the various sponsors was a bit impractical, since in a two-hour show there are approximately seven breaks with eight or nine commercials, plus TV ads in each one. Besides, the commercials are not the main problem -- I just hit the mute button; it's trying to hear the show itself.

The only way to reach the "powers that be" is through your column. A letter would not carry the clout your column does. If they would put filters in their ears, they might find out how truly irritating these background sounds are.

Have others written to substantiate this ongoing problem? -- HAD IT WITH BACKGROUND IN THOUSAND PALMS, CALIF.

DEAR HAD IT: I have received hundreds of letters with the same complaint -- however, one contained the following good news. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: There are about 20 million people in the United States with some degree of hearing loss -- also millions of recent immigrants still struggling to learn English. In addition, there are millions of adults who are learning disabled, or simply never learned to read.

What do they all have in common? They can all benefit from closed-captioned television. The problem: Very few of them realize they can be helped by closed-captions, let alone own the caption decoder needed to decode the otherwise invisible subtitle-like captions that are broadcast with many television shows, and recorded with many home rental video movies. (Contrary to popular belief, closed-captions are not just for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.)

The good news: Many people who become deaf early in life own a caption decoder. The National Captioning Institute claims that half the caption decoders sold were sold to Hispanic and Asian Americans who find it easier to understand new idioms and strange English expressions when they can read and hear the words at the same time.

The bad news: People who lose their hearing late in life either don't know about closed-captions, or consider "dependency" on captions as a sign of aging.

More good news: Starting July 1, 1993, ALL television sets 13 inches or larger made or sold in the United States will have a closed-caption decoder built inside!

Abby, please educate your readers and encourage them to turn on the decoder at all times if they have children at home who are reading at or below fourth-grade level. That little decoder chip inside the television set may help put a permanent dent in the illiteracy rates of this country. -- ANDREA SHETTLE, GALLAUDET COLLEGE, WASHINGTON, D.C.

DEAR ANDREA: Thank you for your informative letter. I am sure many will be very interested in the information you have to share.

AND DEAR READERS: Anyone interested in learning more about closed-caption technology may contact: National Captioning Institute Inc., 5203 Leesburg Pike, 15th Floor, Falls Church, Va. 22041. NCI has two toll-free numbers: (800) 533-9673 for hearing people, and (800) 321-8337 for deaf and speech-impaired people.

To get Abby's booklet "How to Write Letters for All Occasions," send a long, business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Letter Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054. (Postage is included.)

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