Does Captioning Provide Equal Access

Does Captioning Provide Equal Access?

Editor: Most of you who have used Real Time Captioning (CART) probably think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. It often provides the best access for people with hearing loss. But does it provide “equal” access? Does the provision of a written transcript even give an advantage to the CART user?

I recently read Cal Montgomery’s responses to a survey that addressed these issues. I think she did a wonderful job of elucidating the shortcomings of CART and I wanted to share her thoughts with you. She graciously allowed me to do so.

By the way, an audiology exam would indicate that Cal’s hearing is normal! She is autistic and uses CART because she processes written information much better than spoken information. Our online conversation has been my introduction to the use of CART by the autistic community.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Question*: Does real-time captioning really suffice to level the playing field, if you consider that the student probably has less opportunity to take his/her own notes while reading the real-time captioning and speech/lip-reading and the blackboard, etc.?

Not on its own. I *can’t* watch and write at the same time. Since I also use typed communication to participate, I’m usually forced to make this choice on a regular basis — if I want to say something, I am not given the opportunity to know what’s happening in about the 5-minute block before I say it. (I know this, because I am often criticized for not keeping up when I try to participate.) And I use much smaller captioning text than most people, so stuff’s on the screen much longer.

Moreover, there are other things I believe I miss but other people get.

The lining up so that the captions are between me and any visual aids is also challenging. A professor who’s holding things up, but striding back and forth across the front of the room, for example, would be very hard to track while trying to read captions in a fixed place. I’m having problems with group leaders not telling me what visual aids we’ll be using and whether they’ll be captioned. In fact, we’ve used a VCR *once*, and that tape was captioned. But we’ve been warned that we might be watching tapes again — without information about whether there will be captions on those tapes.

*Question*: Does getting the comprehensive transcript from the CART captionist give the student an unfair advantage, since other students don’t get such a transcript?

I doubt it. Unless the professor (or group leader) is very faithful about such things as providing names and technical terms to the captioner *in advance* so they can be keyed in, ensuring that he or she doesn’t give important information when the captioning isn’t running, and speaking aloud what’s also being written on the board (or whatever), you don’t get all the same information from a transcript as other people are probably getting — particularly since, being a couple of seconds behind the rest of the class, it’s harder to identify which information you are missing and ask for a clarification.

All this information would be available, one assumes, in notes. And it is vital.

Students in the class are gradually adding to their store of information, allowing classes to rely more and more on that background information as you progress. The background information informs what is *said* and allows ever-more-complicated information to be presented quickly. Captioners are often not trained in whatever material is being taught, and that means that they are likely to miss some of what’s said, simply because of unfamiliarity with the terms — or their machines are likely to mis-transcribe stuff because of the way it’s done.

A quote from this week (that got caught and fixed): “We start out way over here, and move to over there.” It came through as “We start to outweigh here. Move to there.”

A quote from an earlier week (that did not): “For example, we talk about crip time.” It came through as “For example, crypt time.” The next line was a very fast description of “crip time” — but it came through in the transcription as a non sequitur. (The following week, “crip” was transcribed by a different captioner as “krip”; I asked whether these folks routinely shared their “dictionaries” when switching between one captioner and the next. I was told they do not. This explains, by the way, why there are so many radically different spellings of *group members’* names (even when those names are provided at all to the captioner and I have an opportunity to use them).

I am assuming that most people in the group (for whom “crip” is a commonly used word) had an easier time than I did figuring out what was said in both cases.

For example, if a name or technical term has come up in the weekly reading, you’re usually fairly prepared to recognize it when it’s mentioned in class, and you know how to write it down.

But a captioner without that information is likely to transcribe the same name in a variety of different ways that aren’t necessarily recognizable (this week I got “Drummond,” “Drum man,” and a whole bunch of nonsense phrases for “Grunman”) and I wouldn’t have figured out that they were this one individual had the person in question not *emailed* me within 24 hours over another matter. Moreover, a lot of captioners resort to “he” and “she” very quickly when they can’t figure out what to put down for a name. Or they give whatever they *can* get.

“Ludwig Wittgenstein,” for example, can come through as “Ludwig,” as “Wittgenstein,” as “he” or “him,” as “someone,” as “victuals tight,” as “wit going style” as…. Some of those, I’m gonna be able to figure out in realtime, particularly if the context has been well-rendered. Some of those, I’m *not*.

So I often know that *someone* said *something* much like “…….” when it’s quoted, but it would take some effort to go back and figure out *who* said *what, exactly*.

And in, say, a philosophy or literature class where all philosophers’ or writers’ names are rendered unrecognizably or simply as “he,” it’s not always easy to reconstruct what was *intended* by what’s *transcribed*.

Precise information often doesn’t come through correctly. I’ve got a heap of transcripts relating to some show that’s supposedly on Channel 9 at 11 on some days. I can’t find that show. Now, is 9 a mis-heard 5 or 1 (because both of those numbers come through as 9 a lot)? Or 19, 29, 39, 49…? 11 seems accurate; I don’t usually get 11 unless something like 11 is meant, so we’re probably talking 11 or 11:30. Morning or evening, I don’t know. Some days — which? That could be just a gloss because we’re moving so rapidly. It could be something like “Monday, Wednesday and Thursday” said so fast the captioner just glossed it. Or it could honestly be “some days” — it’s a news show, so maybe it only comes on when there’s particular kinds of news? Or maybe it’s “Sunday” or “Monday,” both of which sound somewhat like “Some days”?

If I only had one variable to play with, or at least if the *name* of the damned show was provided, I might be able to find it. But since all I knew about the show the first four or five times I was encouraged to watch it was the names of some of the people who work on it and wouldn’t show up in credits, I was lost.

Turns out we’re talking about a weekly half-hour show at 1:30 on Sunday afternoons on Channel 19 *according to a particular cable service’s numbering*. Because I finally *asked*. Now, I asked a classmate who had a reason to know, so I’m not sure how available this information would have been if I’d been able to decode the voice-message — but I do know that if I had known I hadn’t understood it *while the person was still giving the information* as opposed to when we were three speakers down the road and on another topic, I would have felt more comfortable asking.

It can take *hours* of working with a transcript, or fragment of transcript, to come up with a theory of what *probably happened* and what information was *probably conveyed*. Whereas a student with decent note-taking skills can usually come up with a theory of what probably happened and what was probably conveyed by the time he or she walks out the classroom door.

*Question*: Does the provision of a daily transcript of the class make it possible for the student to pay less attention than her/his classmates, and thus give the student an unfair advantage?

I don’t know. In my experience, I *get* a weekly transcript. I’m coming out of the meetings absolutely exhausted (they’re 2 hours long) and I can’t really tell you what happened. Even after I read the transcript again, I can’t really tell you what happened. Because I don’t have access to my classmates’ names (there’s a lot of discussion going on but there’s a reluctance to provide the names to the captioners) or even distinctions between them in the text, I really don’t participate in the discussions afterwards. I’m also faceblind, but I don’t think even if I could recognize them by their faces I’d be able to look up and see who’s talking and then get back to the message.

On the other hand, I am reading Paul Samuelson’s “Economics: An Introductory Analysis” for fun, and am fairly convinced I’m understanding it. I not only understand written communication better than spoken communication; I generally understand written communication better than most of the people around me. And I do not have the sense that I’m coming away with an unfair advantage. Rather, I’m aware of a lot of information (such as directions to buildings where meetings will be held on a one-time basis, names of guest presenters, reference sources, and groupmates, sentences with technical terms, most of what’s presented in the final half-hour of a two-hour block, &c.) that I’m not getting but that other people appear either to be getting or to not care about getting.

On the other hand, Samuelson writes in written-English, which is different from spoken-English. Since I have never been proficient in decoding spoken-English, it might be that I have an unwarranted belief that spoken lectures *can* provide clear information. […]

Further, I’m aware that my groupmates (and this is within a disability rights context, so I’m assuming that this problem is *bigger* on a campus) are very critical of the fact that I ask questions they believe have already been answered and do not appreciate being asked to give their names. Clarification, therefore, is strongly discouraged.

[…]

How ’bout an experiment: watch “Dateline” some night with the captions on and the voices off. Keeping in mind that (a) you’re getting breaks every 15 minutes and so is the captioner (meaning you’re getting a better quality transcript than you would be if you’d both been going constantly for the full 45 (commercial-free) minutes Dateline is on, and (b) the captioning is lining up with the visuals, so that you have the opportunity to see *both* what the captioner is typing *and* what’s being shown to everyone *much* better than you typically would in a classroom, do that.

Have someone else watch the thing with the sound on and the captions off. Someone you generally think is about as good at taking in and processing information as you.

Then have both of you take a test, right away, based on the show, written by a third person who watched with the captions off and is therefore working on the information provided to “regular” viewers. The test should treat as basic information the names of the people shown and quoted, any statistics provided on the show, any graphics — that, in other words, the level of detail a professor (though, granted, Dateline is much “softer” than most college courses) might expect.

It might give you a better sense of why people are asking for particular accommodations. Or it might not. But, hey, it’s ninety minutes for three people.

I’m working with some of the best captioners I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with right now (I had one in Philadelphia once who seemed to think that one word a sentence for a very technical philosophical lecture — and she was completely unprepared for it, which was not her fault, but did mean she had no idea what was being said — would suffice: it did not), and I am still missing a lot of stuff. It is conceivable that my standards are higher than others’ or that nobody wants to admit to not knowing what’s happening…. but I think there’s a distinct possibility that the organizers’ unfamiliarity with what the technology can and cannot do, and their unwillingness or inability to prepare the captioners appropriately (including telling them what room we will be meeting in) is meaning I’m not getting the same information that other people are getting, even when it wouldn’t be that hard to include me.

And I’m currently in a fight over the following quote (I lifted this directly from the transcript, and have edited *nothing*, though I can’t determine which (if any) statement this is in response to, nor can I determine who said it):

“You sometimes hear the term AB for able-bodied. It really should be AM, able minded. This is a perfect illustration of it. I think an awful lot of people in the disabled community are — more people are AM in the disabled community.”

As a cognitively disabled person, I find that very offensive. I’m struggling with one group leader who insists that this is a shorthand for a subtle critique of the idea of “able-ness” and that the detail didn’t make it into the transcript, and another who insists that because I don’t know who said it (and therefore what else the person has said in previous weeks) I am not in a position to judge whether or not it’s offensive.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is where the rubber meets the road. If everyone’s insisting that I don’t have enough information to determine whether that statement offers a parallel between able-bodiedness and able-mindedness and a link between able-mindedness and virtue (and it’s possible that I do not), and therefore to make informed comments on captioned discussions, then I think we’ve just demonstrated that *by their standards* I don’t have full access.