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MAG Guide Vol. 11

Real-time captioning -- a career with a meaningful mission

"Nearly one in every ten Americans now has some hearing loss, and the ratio in the senior citizen population group is upwards of one in three. When hearing loss becomes substantial, listening to television turns from enjoyment to strain. Millions find themselves isolated from the medium that has become so important in our society.

Captioned programming can mean re-entry into the mainstream, especially in information and public affairs. The production of captions for extended and/or emergency coverage during major news events enables people with hearing loss to participate along with their hearing peers in important current developments."

--Donna Sorkin
Consumer and Vice-President, Consumer Affairs Cochlear Americas
Innovator, developer and manufacturer of cochlear implants
for people with hearing loss

Most Americans rely on television for the news, information and entertainment it provides. But for more than 24 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, television is either partially or completely inaccessible without captioning. Due to the constant and ever-increasing need for captioning of live programming (news, special reports, sports, etc.), becoming a real-time stenographer offers the opportunity to provide a vital public service as a valued professional in a rapidly growing field.

Captions enable viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing to participate with family and friends in America's favorite pastime: watching TV. Captions also can benefit adults and children who are learning to read, as well as people learning English as a second language.

Like subtitles, captions display spoken dialogue as printed words on the television screen, but unlike subtitles, captions are specifically designed for viewers who are deaf and hard of hearing. Closed captions are hidden as data within the television signal and must be decoded in order to appear on your TV screen. With either a caption-ready TV or a set-top decoder, you can switch captions on or off with the touch of a button.

The ability to do real-time captioning marries the skills of a court stenographer with computer technology. Stenocaptioners type words as they are spoken, producing captions that are broadcast simultaneously with the live program.

Skills required for stenocaptioning

A successful stenocaptioner must have a minimum typing speed of 225 words per minute and a minimum 98% accuracy rate to ensure that captions are adequately readable for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing; this rate still translates into three or four translation errors every minute. The stenocaptioner also must continuously build and refine his or her personal dictionary, which will likely comprise 50,000 to 100,000-plus entries.

Training for real-time captioners

Most stenocaptioners are graduates of court reporting schools. There are more than 150 court reporting training programs, both in classrooms and online, currently offered across the country.

Students at court reporting schools spend their first few months learning shorthand theory--how to operate a specialized steno keyboard that allows court reporters to write more than 200 words per minute. The keyboard has only 24 keys and a number bar. Shorthand theory is a method of hitting keys and combinations of keys to create words without typing each letter of every word.

More advanced classes focus on building speed and accuracy while enhancing the students' knowledge. Academic classes are offered in specialized fields, such as anatomy, medical terminology, legal terminology, punctuation and word usage. All of these classes help students build their own personalized dictionary--the computerized dictionary that "understands" the combination of keystrokes needed to write words. Moreover, many training programs have implemented educational tracks for those students who want to specialize in real-time captioning.

Before a stenocaptioner can go "on the air" to create live captions, the individual needs to go through a retraining process. This retraining is necessary because court reporters are traditionally allowed the opportunity to correct their transcripts before delivery, whereas when captioning in real-time during a live broadcast, the stenocaptioner has only one chance to get it right. The retraining process can take from six weeks to six months, depending on the student's experience and skill level.

Types of services

Live captioning for television
Stenocaptioning for television can be done in several different ways, all of which require a stenotype machine, a computer and real-time captioning software. The computer is linked through a modem to a caption encoder at the broadcast origination site--the local television station or, in some instances, the television network broadcast operation. The caption encoder embeds the caption data into the video being broadcast by the local television station or network.

Some providers of live captioning for television have sophisticated facilities with multiple back-up systems for equipment, software, satellite reception, power supplies and phone lines, allowing for virtually uninterrupted captioning service. They also employ multiple stenocaptioners, which makes vacations easier to schedule and sick or personal days easier to cover.

Other providers operate on a smaller scale, working from their home as either independent contractors or as members of a stenocaptioning team.

Live captioning for the Web
Captioning for the Web is similar to captioning for television, except that the caption data is sent via modem or Internet connection to the Web site, where it is added to the streaming video. Users can log on to the Web site and, after selecting their media player (QuickTime, Real Player, etc.), can watch the captions along with the program. Captioning for the Web has the added benefit of creating a searchable text file for future use.

CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation)
For meetings and conferences, classrooms and courtrooms, much like live captioning for television and the Web, CART-style captioning requires a stenotype machine, a computer and real-time captioning software. However, when providing CART services, the stenocaptioner is usually in the room as the meeting or conference takes place. While the stenocaptioner listens to the proceedings and writes live during the meeting, the computer and software translate the steno into English, which instantly appears on a computer monitor or other display for immediate access by people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The Federal Communications Commission instituted a mandate that requires virtually all television programming to air with captions as of January 1, 2006. The mandate, which went into effect on January 1, 1998, laid out an eight-year plan to increase gradually the amount of captioning available on new television programming. Television stations across the nation have been working toward increasing the amount of captioned programs they broadcast, primarily by ensuring that their pre-produced programs arrive at the station with captions. But by January 1, 2006, television stations will need to provide captioning on their live programming as well--including news, sporting events, emergency announcements, etc.--which means that skilled stenocaptioners will be in even greater demand.

Each month, there is progress in the field of voice recognition technology--meaning that, one day, this technology could possibly be used to provide captioning. However, voice recognition technology is still years away from providing the accuracy that is required for captioning. Television programs are made up of many different voices and sounds, which are made readable through effective captioning. No computer can "listen" and "translate" the spoken word as well as a trained stenocaptioner.

Q&A with a stenocaptioner

Name: Jessica Bewsee

Years in court
1.5 years

Years as stenocaptioner:
8 years

How did you learn about stenocaptioning as a career choice?
I had an excellent court reporting teacher at my college. From the first day of school, she emphasized that "real-time" was the wave of the future. She groomed all of us to write as accurately and as quickly as we could so we would be prepared if we chose stenocaptioning as a career.

What's the most challenging part of your job?
I'd say the hardest part for me is remembering all of the brief forms or "stenographic abbreviations" (shortened versions of regular words that come up frequently during a TV program) that I've created for names of different people and countries. And even though I write at 260 words a minute, sometimes the speed is challenging, too.

What's the best part of your job?
There's so much to choose from! My strongest skill has always been writing on the steno machine, and I've always enjoyed it more than editing transcripts. I love to write, and that's what I get to do when I'm captioning. I also like knowing that I'm really helping people.

What skills/knowledge do you feel someone should have in order to be a great stenocaptioner?
You should have nerves of steel. In addition to being very fast and accurate on the steno machine, I think it's important to be able to think quickly and make quick decisions about word substitutions for readability. You need to have a curious mind and be aware of current events, while having knowledge of political history as well. Read the local, national and international papers daily. Practice. I've been here eight years, and I still put on a speed tape daily (which helps to build stenotyping speed). I also watch local news that another stenocaptioner is writing and practice against that.

What advice would you give someone considering entering the court reporting/stenocaptioning field?
It's a rewarding and worthwhile career, but you have to be willing to put great time and effort into it to be the best you can be.


To learn more about real-time captioning as a career and the audience
it serves, contact the following organizations.

Media Access Group at WGBH
Stenocaptioner positions sometimes become available in the Media Access Group's Boston office. If you're interested in working for our organization as a professional real-time stenocaptioner, visit regularly to learn about new openings.

125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 02134
617.300.3600 voice/TTY
617.300.1020 fax e-mail

National Court Reporters Association (NCRA)
NCRA is a 27,000-member nonprofit organization representing the judicial reporting and captioning professions. Members include official court reporters, deposition reporters, broadcast captioners, providers of real-time communication access services for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, and others who capture and convert the spoken word into information bases and readable formats. The mission of the NCRA is to advance the profession of court reporting through testing and certification, educational opportunities, communications, government relations, and research and analysis. The NCRA's Web site contains a complete, up-to-date list of court reporting schools and programs in the United States and Canada, while the organization's career Web site lists opportunities available in the field.

National Court Reporters Association
8224 Old Courthouse Road
Vienna, VA 22182

National organizations serving audiences who are deaf
or hard of hearing

Alexander Graham Bell
Association for the Deaf

3417 Volta Place, NW
Washington, DC 20007
202.337.5220 voice
202.337.5221 TTY

Association of Late-Deafened Adults
1131 Lake Street, #204
Oak Park, IL 60301
877.348.7357 voice/fax
708.358.0135 TTY

National Association of the Deaf
814 Thayer Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20910
301.587.1788 voice/TTY

National Fraternal Society
of the Deaf

1118 S. Sixth Street
Springfield, IL 62703
217.789.7429 voice
217.789.7438 TTY

Self Help for
Hard of Hearing People

7910 Woodmont Avenue
Suite 1200
Bethesda, MD 20814
301.657.2248 voice
301.657.2249 TTY

Caption Services Description Services NCAM