The Ecstasy of Seeing the Words

Gael Hannan
May 12, 2015

It’s difficult to describe.

For people who don’t need it, real-time captioning is a very cool thing. Especially seeing it for the first time. It’s awe-inspiring to watch a captioner produce, verbatim, a speaker’s words, often just a hair of a second after each word is said.  “It’s amazing how you do that!” they say.


These same people have most likely seen closed captioning on the TV or subtitles on a film, but wow, seeing someone produce it live is exciting!


But for people with hearing loss, it goes beyond cool and exciting.


Having “the words” right there, albeit on a screen a few feet from the speaker, is a liberation for us. The impact of this print interpretation, this access, on people who need it is like pouring water on the parched earth.  We are no longer suspended, but moving forward, going from the darkness of incomprehension to the lightness of knowledge. From murky to clear. From exclusion to inclusion.efhoh-vienna-april-2011


It puts us in the moment—we are part of what’s happening because we are understanding in real time—not a few words behind or, worse, being left behind to have something explained later.  We are on the same level as everyone else.


As I said, it’s hard to adequately describe how necessary captioning is to us.  If we don’t have it when we need it, it’s not like cake without the icingit’s like having no food at all! We need the visual to supplement the audible anywhere speech is uttered: on TV, in the movie theatre, in lectures, in school and so on.


And once a person understands how real-time captioning (or CART, computer-assisted real-time translation) works, we understand why those occasional, jaw-dropping captioning mistakes occur during a live newscast on TV: there’s a real, live captioner listening in to the broadcast and providing the captioning. This highly trained professional transcribes the spoken word into print with phonetic code combinations on a court reporting system, producing English or French or Spanish or any language on the screen. And sometimes mistakes occur because of the demands of the high speed of human speech.


One of my favorite TV captioning bloopers was seeing the spoken words “Archbishop of Canterbury” appear on the TV screen as the “Arch Bitch of Canterbury”.  At a conference, I read that, instead of coffee and juice, coffee and Jews were being served the next morning for breakfast.


Captioning has improved the quality of my life over the past 20 years.  I often think, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the same level of access in other everyday activities?  A little caption screen at the checkout counter, for example?  A woman with hearing loss, who is highly dependent on captioning on TV and movies, told me a story that still makes me laugh.  When she and her husband were having some ‘words’, she had difficulty following his agitated speech. In desperation, she slowly turned her head to the nearby TV set in the ridiculous hope that a miracle would happen. Maybe, in a supernatural moment, her husband’s words would appear on the screen and she’d know what to yell back at him.


Would any of my life events have been different if there had been print interpretation? When the Hearing Husband and I were married in 1991, I was not yet involved in hearing loss advocacy and had never heard of CART.  But I re-dream my wedding as fully accessible, with the captioner dressed for the occasion and the screen draped with flowers, as the words of our ceremony appeared on it.  However, the captioner can only transcribe what the captioner hears.  She would have caught the words of the minister, my friend Shona who read from Khalil Gibran, and my vows. But there would have been a blank screen when Doug started his vows, because he blanked.


101This hiccup in the proceedings was not really a surprise. The minister had insisted we write our own vows and, supremely overconfident of our abilities given the emotion of the occasion, we decided to recite them.  As an actor, I was used to memorizing and delivering lots of words (mostly in the right order), even when nervous, but it wasn’t so easy for Doug.  He got three words out and then his voice petered out to a whisper and then, nothing.  I could feel the audience leaning forward to catch what his moving but silent lips were saying and even my dream captioner would have done the same thing.  Finally, he choked out enough words to satisfy the minister who quickly pronounced “Done!” 


Captioning in school would have allowed me to sit somewhere else in the classroom, rather than right under the teacher’s nose.  Business meetings would have been less tortuous.  I would have enjoyed going to the theater more if I could understand what the actors were saying.  I didn’t have captioning back then—but I have it now.  And every time I start a DVD or a TV show and the captioning starts, it’s a quiet moment of ecstasy.


Photo of EFHOH and Lauren Storck, CCAC

birdsong hearing benefits
  1. THANKS so much Gael – wonderful new blogpost 🙂
    Lauren, invites the world to join us – official non-profit, all volunteer, inrternational, one mission, nothing else like it. Fun also!

    1. Spot on, Gael. We have live captioning at our HLAA meetings & our captioner is a wonder woman. I had totally given up on TV until the closed captions became the law.

  2. Hi Gael –
    Given that automatic transcribing programs (don’t know correct name) such as Dragon, display dictation on the computer screen – not as accurate as a “live captionist” perhaps, but sufficient to convey the essence/context of what is spoken, exist, there is no excuse for classrooms not accommodating HH students with some variation – teacher with lapel mic – speaks – and her/his words are displayed on a wall screen or the students’ laptop monitors.
    The technology is all there and not expensive. All that’s required is to get it done!!

  3. Loved your article. If someone turns the caption off the TV, or it’s not lined up right, I just panic. Would love to put a caption on a lot of people I talk to. Ah, won’t life be easier!

  4. Well said Gael! In addition to getting the full speech, I now use captions as a means to learn a new language when those language shows are captioned (e.g. French). Really frustrating for me though is those hearing people who bitterly complain about and object to the captions being on, people tend to be so indifferent to my disability means. They actually say that the captions get in the way of the screen and prevent them from hearing the speech! I guess it takes all kinds to make a world . . .

  5. Dear Gael,

    We were using CART for our local Stark County, Ohio HLAA meetings for several years, and it is wonderful to see. I always say I can read a lot better than I can hear. Captions in the way??!! Look at those glorified sports programs — captions top AND bottom! I have yet to (hear) of any complaints of those running captions, but maybe it’s because they are not intended for HOH people but “normal” people. Oh, well. Can’t win.

  6. Amazingly, I’ve heard that some audiologists have deliberately refused to turn on the captions for the TVs in their waiting rooms because they want to emphasize “hearing” as much as possible. However, I think such audiologists are not understanding that many people who benefit from hearing aids can experience a great deal of fatigue; turning on the captions can allow them to understand what’s being said with much less effort without having to continue to work so hard to decipher speech. We need to be able to have full access whenever possible, while hearing aids still let most of us converse with people face-to-face when captioning is not available.

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