This is a gushy, mushy love blog about captioning.
Speech is a many-splendored and multi-faceted thing for the person with hearing loss who communicates through the spoken word. To understand speech, we must see it as well as hear it, observing speech on the speaker’s face or reading it in its written form.
Captioning, or CART, is the exquisite real-time, verbatim translation of the spoken word into its written form. It completes the message, creating comprehension in a process so rapid that it’s almost imperceptible. Watching TV or sitting in a lecture, we absorb the sound of the spoken word, the facial clues and the print translation, and blend them seamlessly into understanding.
I’m crazy in love with captioning. As a hard of hearing person, I use it in all its forms – closed captioning on television, open-captioned films, subtitled foreign language films, and real-time captioning or CART (computer-assisted real time translation).
On the other hand, as a public speaker, workshop and facilitator, CART connects me to my audience so that they (hopefully) understand what the heck I’m saying and I turn to the screen for clarification if I cannot understand comments from the floor.
The first time I experienced CART was also the first talk I delivered to an audience with hearing loss, and it was a life-changing experience. Since then, hearing loss has gone beyond being my ‘issue’ to become a passion and a career, and captioning has taken a permanent and starring role in my everyday communication. All of my work is captioned – workshops and performances, online webinars and my open-captioned DVD (Unheard Voices). If I don’t have captioning , it’s because the organizers don’t have funding for it, or for presentations to ‘hearing’ groups that don’t require print interpretation. (I do, though, and I feel lonely without it.)
I love CART providers. They make my life easier and they understand the needs of the community they serve. Every time I work with a captioner (and there have been many), he or she becomes my best friend, at least for that presentation. Captioners are professionals, trained to remain cool under stressful acoustical conditions, although occasional rising blood pressure will cause a CART provider to scold us, ask us to slow down, or demand an early break. A nervous captioner may make more mistakes. Since I face away from the screen, I’m usually alerted to the more amusing ones by snickers or puzzled faces from the audience, such as the time a conference captioner relayed information about breakfast the next morning: Jews and coffee will be served in the lobby.
Captioning is dependent on technology, so a glitch anywhere in the process can compromise the smooth flow of information, or bring it to a grinding halt:
- At a conference, mere seconds before I was to begin a complex dramatic presentation, the captioner fell ill and an unprepared CART provider had to step in. I survived, but I think the captioner took to drink.
- The projector bulb light can burn out – and no projection, no captioning! One hundred people cannot crowd behind the captioner to read the words on her computer.
- The connection for remote captioning can be lost. No captioning, no comprende!
- The remote captioner can’t hear the people speaking.
- The onsite captioner can’t hear the people speaking.
- Cool rooms are preferred because it’s tough to work in a sauna. My favorite captioner battled with sticky keys, becoming sweatier and grumpier.
- The remote captioner must understand time zones. My 9 am presentation in Newfoundland was being captioned remotely from Vancouver, a 3.5 hour time difference. At 9 am, the captioner hadn’t shown up, so they called her house. It was 5:30 am, she’d gone for coffee and ‘would be back soon.’ Arriving moments later, she was so flustered that the first few minutes of captioning were almost illegible.
As much as I love them, I’m not a captioner’s dream. I speak quickly and much of my work involves dramatic monologues, spoken poetry – even a rap song or two – that have unique rhythms. CART providers prepare by reading advance presentation material, entering unusual words or names into their lexicon. But my best presentations have always been those captioned by people familiar with my speech patterns.
At the International Federation of Hard of Hearing people conference in Vancouver, BC, I was delivering a closing night performance of stand-up comedy and a rap piece to an audience of 600. Captioner Chuck Motter understood the significant impact of captioning that goes to the heart, rhythm and spirit of the presenter’s work. Usually, captioning looks like one long paragraph, but Chuck and I spent a couple of hours creating ‘set’ sections that he would ‘run’ rather than captioning live, making my drama and poetry more visually musical for people whose hearing loss required them to read the screen, rather than watching me. This can be risky – but if I had stopped, changed the words, or completely forgotted my lines, Chuck would have resumed live captioning.
When the captioning screen is too far from the speaker, some audience members must make a choice: Do I watch the presenter or read the screen? Shifting eyes back and forth is dizzy-making and information is lost. For my performance at Yellowknife’s Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, the artistic stage manager wanted something better than the typical stand-alone, screen on-stage beside me. He wanted “surtitles.”
Using a large screen that lowered down from the ceiling, he positioned it a few feet above my head, allowing easy-to-read captions. In large venues, people may have difficulty seeing the speaker’s face, so clear, large-screen captioning is crucial. At HLAA’s 2002 convention in Seattle, video was used to project the speakers’ images onto a huge screen, making it easier for the audience to read both the speaker’s face and the captions. As the Keynote Speaker, it was an exhilarating experience to be flanked by large-scale captioning on one side and a large-scale “Me” on the other.
Even after years of working with captioners, I’m still in awe of their skill and speed in connecting speaker and audience. While a captioner may not take my breath away, he or she takes the words right out of my mouth.