Captioning Conferences: Accessibility in Action

telecom-blogAround the world, 360 million people have disabling hearing loss. Deafness can be an isolating condition, with those affected unable to hear a knock at the door, a dog barking or an announcement at a train station. But services such as conference captioning equal the playing field, allowing people who are hard of hearing to engage with and participate in decision making processes.

Conference captioning is important for several reasons. It provides ‘reasonable accommodation’, enabling equal access to communication for individuals who have hearing loss or whose first language is not the spoken language being used. It levels the playing field for individuals with hearing loss, thereby has the potential to increase productivity in employment along with various other environments. Captioning also puts everyone at ease because they can see the words and know they were ‘heard’. Finally, a transcript is available following a captioned event which can be used both by individuals with and without hearing loss to help write notes and reports.

While captioning has been in use for some time now, there has been a heightened awareness and focus on inclusivity of persons with disabilities since the adoption and/or ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in December 2006. Real-time captioning is just one of the ways to fill the mandate of the Convention.

In the late 1980s, technology advanced to the point where stenographic notes could be translated into English text in real-time. Knowing the benefit that this would have for people who are deaf or hard of hearing such as my brother and sister-in-law, I established Caption First, an international text-to-speech service, in 1989. Stenography is a shorthand language that is typed on a stenographic keyboard. Words are typed syllable by syllable. There are 23 keys on a stenographic machine: eight key are for the consonants that begin a syllable or word, ten keys for the same consonants that end a syllable or word, and four keys for vowels. Different keys are combined to form the different sounds of the English alphabet.

As technology develops, so do the ways that we can send and display teal-time text. Initially, captioning real-time services were provided on-site. With the development of software such as PCAnywhere, captioning could be provided via telephone connections. Today, services can be provided remotely around the world over the Internet. However, there is an advantage to having captioners on-site, especially when there are last minute changes; names and other preparation can be obtained quickly by the on-site captioner. Additionally, it is always helpful to see the image or document that is being shown to the meeting participants.

Though significant progress has been made, challenges remain for a wider pick-up or mainstreaming of captioning. For organizers, one of the main challenges is cost and price per hour. For captioning services, being able to hear what is being said is a key issue. Addressing these issues requires training captioner’s skills for both speed and content, as well as developing the ability to understand English spoken with various accents. It is true that speech recognition is a powerful tool, but the quality is not as good as that of a live stenographic captioner.

We must work together to ensure that these issues are resolved so that the world of employment is fully open to those with hearing loss.

ITU is proud to be one of the first UN agencies to offer conference captioning at all international conferences. ITU’s commitment to advancing ICT accessibility was reinforced 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference which called for the involvement of persons with disabilities and persons with specific needs in ITU’s work so that they may collaborate in the adoption of a comprehensive action plan together with external entities and bodies concerned with this topic. To read more about ITU’s work in accessibility, please click here.


Patricia K. Graves

Pat GravesPatricia K. Graves founded Caption First in 1989 in Chicago, IL. She is president, CEO and lead writer of Caption First. Pat has 13 years’ experience as a court reporter in New York City, South Carolina, and Illinois, and 22 years as a communication access real-time translation (CART) and captioning provider across the United States and around the world. She earnt a degree in Court & Convention Reporting from Triton College, and is a certified stenowriter.

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