The Devil in the Details – The Power and Limits of Captioning

In all of life, particularly work, I’ve noticed that we humans have a tendency to over-simplify our challenges. That’s why, if you’ve ever seen or read about how NASA manages their projects to the tiniest detail (and even that can’t completely avert a catastrophe), no matter how much effort we put into getting things set up perfectly, there’s always going to be a detail that becomes an “issue”.

Having fought for many months to get a captioned phone, and CART accommodation at work, I recently confronted my own denial about the “details” of using captions. I had believed captioning would enable me to easily resume full participation in the hearing world – and where did I get that belief? Formed as all irrational beliefs are – from ignorance – it hadn’t been an issue for me until the last couple years of my (now) 49. Non-issues get ignored – until they become issues.

Mind you, I’m not complaining here – captions are a godsend for the HOH and Deaf. On many days now, if it weren’t for captioning, the telephone and the TV would be useless (still: TV <g>), and even live group meetings would be pointless.

As anyone who’s used “live” captioning will tell you, the quality (speed, accuracy) can vary a lot. Aside from all the technical details that can get in the way (network connections, software, etc.), ultimately we’re still dealing with a person – so far, anyway – and people (even those trained as court reporters) come with different skills and capabilities. Add to this the fact that most of us (even me) naturally speak much faster than any human being could ever type (even in “court code”), and there’s going to be plenty of room for error and lag. Of course, the commercial interests will sing the praises of their products and services, but we all know how the real world works if we’ve lived in it long enough.

What motivated me to write this was the repeated frustrations I’ve encountered using captions for my work. I’m required to “attend” many teleconferences, and that’s one of the most challenging venues for even the best captioner. Not only do they have to manage room noise and multiple speakers; there seems to be a trend (in my company anyway) for presenters to literally compress their speech to fit as much material as possible into a short time frame. Time is money, as they say.

The other day I got so frustrated by one training session that I requested a transcript (they record most conferences, fortunately). Clearly this wasn’t a typical request, as nobody I asked knew how to arrange it – happily, my local office administrator stepped up to the plate and offered to do it – I haven’t seen the result yet, but I’m betting she gets a fast lesson in fast speech <g>.

Though I know it’s a weary subject in the HOH/Deaf community, feel free to comment with your own rants about captioning quality here.

Paul S (AKA: LifeWrecked)

0 thoughts on “The Devil in the Details – The Power and Limits of Captioning

  1. Hi Paul,
    Kim here with a new log-in name. I’m just having fun creating more new blogs that I don’t use and downloading pictures. Anyway– see that’s why I decided to learn ASL. Though I admit it won’t help me at work. But I figure the more communication avenues available, the better. I was surprised to learn that people can actually “talk” faster in ASL than we can. It’s because they can communicate an entire sentence in just a couple hand + arm movements. Each sign isn’t always signed singly. They can be combined together to make one swift smooth movement to convey a concept that would take several words in English. On the other hand, because it’s such a different type of communication it challenges you to think differently. I’m not sure I’ll ever be fluent, but I do like it when people talk and sign to me.

    I realize this article isn’t about ASL, it’s about captioning. There are drawbacks of captioning that rarely gets discussed among the late-deafened and hard-of-hearing, so I thought I would bring the ASL alternative to the table.

  2. With captioning at work, there are also vocabulary issues. I have a captioned phone at home, but it’s useless for calls from work. My colleagues and I need to use words that are just not part of the mainstream vocabulary: kozo, abaca, Jaques shear, su-geta, Vandercook, and on and on…even the best captioners don’t know what they’re hearing. So I’ll get calls that read, “There’s a problem with the (unclear). When I added the (unclear), it (unclear)and then (unclear).”
    Or worse, they guess. So it ends up being the same as not having any assistance at all. (Though sometimes the errors do provide a lot of entertainment).

  3. Haven’t done it, but I’ve often thought of compiling a list of some of the best “caption bloopers” I’ve seen. I too work in an industry full of strange terms and acronyms (healthcare anaylysis) that frequently stump captioners. Funniest is when a technical term becomes risque or even downright filthy.

  4. Thanks Boult – and sorry so late to approve – it got marked as spam. 😉

    For those of a more sensitive nature, I’d recommend the quite fascinating home site of The Open and Closed Project – who produced that page:

    Paul S – AKA: LifeWrecked

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