An issue that has plagued the court reporting industry in Australia for many years now is the lack of machine stenographers (stenos). It’s a vicious circle in which there are not enough people training and as a result there are not enough jobs. Put simply, if employers can’t find enough suitably-qualified stenographers to do the work, they will look for other solutions thereby reducing the number of jobs available to stenographers. I think this is a fact that is probably recognised by all in the industry. This seems incredible when demand for stenographers is actually as strong as ever, but again, not enough stenographers = employers looking for, and using, other solutions.
But there’s another side effect to all this. Pressure is being put on stenographers to work longer and harder without breaks. The lack of skilled stenographers has led to a higher price being put on the skill, the old economics of supply and demand. But machine stenography is a skill that cannot be overrated. Add to this there are also downward cost pressures when tendering and quoting for jobs. This results in companies paying stenos less and only allocating or booking one steno for jobs that involve many hours of work and either very small or no breaks. Or sometimes there are breaks but the work is very intensive and a steno is expected to work for hours at this intensity without a break. Stenos are burning out and developing work-related health problems. Often those who book us out (I say “us” because I am a steno too) worry too much about securing the work and profits. Not enough consideration is given to the fact that we are human beings or to safeguarding our particular skill for the future.
At CaptionsLIVE we aim to be a sustainable business – sustainable for our stenos and sustainable for our clients. We keep our prices low enough that you can afford to have two stenos when needed on a job. We want to look after our stenos for their own career longevity and quality of life, but also so they will be available to provide a premium service to clients well into the future.
From 14 – 16 November we captioned the plenary sessions of the Australian Assistive Technology Conference (AATC) held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC).
It was a really interesting conference with a strong overall theme of experience, opportunities and innovations. Keynote speakers included present and past Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioners, assistive technology (AT) users, innovators, advocates, professionals in the AT field and an impressive young man (Oli Pizzey-Stratford) who spoke about his AT journey and his grandpa’s incredible creations in the back shed.
One of the keynote speakers, an AT user, said this about her equipment: “You might think it is weird to name my assistive technology, but they are so much a part of my life that they take on a life and personality of their own. I think it helps to break down barriers in interaction. If I tell you that this is a wheelchair, it is just a bit of equipment ‑ cold and impersonal. But if I introduce Xena and tell you that she is an important part of my life and creative work, you will see her totally different … I think because I do personalise my technology, it encourages my support workers to treat my equipment with more respect. It also tells you a lot about my relationship with the equipment. Penny is a good friend who communicates my personality. Xena is creative and a little bit sexy.”
I like what she’s said here, mostly because it’s very similar to how I feel about my steno machine. Now to think of a name for my sexy purple technology!
It was recently explained to me that the greatest strength of stenographers over other forms of captioning is the reliability of the output. You can rely on the output to be consistently high, even if given limited-to-no preparation. I have been thinking on this. Reliability is a pretty good thing to have going for you. A quick Google search of the words “reliable” and “reliability” turns up these results:
Reliable – consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted.
Reliability - the quality of being trustworthy or of performing consistently well. The degree to which the result can be depended on to be accurate.
When you’re relying on captions to get your information, “consistent”, “dependable” and “accurate” are all words that spring to mind to explain what you want the service to be. They are also the words that we like to use at CaptionsLIVE to explain the quality of our captioning service.
Using a stenographer is not only the best way to produce captions but also by far the most reliable.
So how do CaptionsLIVE ensure reliability in their caption output?
If the quality of your captions is important to you, then consider a Stenocaptioner to get the job done right. You may not know what you are missing.
Age-related hearing loss affects more than half of all Australians aged between 60-70 and is a major cause of disability in Australians aged over 55.
In October 2017 CaptionsLIVE proudly captioned the Libby Harricks Memorial Oration for the Deafness Forum of Australia. The 2017 oration was part of Dementia Australia’s “Alzheimer’s Australia National Conference”. Dr Piers Dawes spoke about the possible links between hearing loss and cognitive health and whether effective prevention, identification and management of hearing problems represent an opportunity to optimise well-being and quality of life in older age.
I spoke with Peter there, whom I have met and spoken to at a number of jobs. He is an older gentleman who enjoys being engaged in the community and continually learning new things. He is very interesting to chat to and he is a great advocate for captioning as it greatly assists him in staying active and engaged in the community. Peter does not have dementia but was interested in the topic. He would not have been able to successfully access the oration, or the many other events I’ve spoken to him at, if not for captioning.
A Dementia Australia fact sheet on hearing loss and dementia suggests: “There are a range of lifestyle changes that may help reduce the risk of developing dementia, including:
Live captioning of events can help people like Peter keep socially active and engaged and learn new things. You see, hearing impairment in midlife is a disability that affects quality of life and engagement of older people in society. Live Captioning will also help you communicate your message more effectively, given the problems older people with hearing loss can face with understanding speech when there is a lot of background noise or poor acoustics.
So here’s the question I’m asking today: why aren’t more events for older Australians being Live Captioned?
One of the aspects I really enjoy about workplace CART or one-on-one CART is the relationships you get to build with the client. So many of the larger jobs are a one-off where you caption a large event or conference and then that’s it until next year. But these small, often workplace, jobs are more regular, and you get to really know your clients. Often you become more than just a captioner, you become a friend at the workplace lunch or morning tea where you can assist the client to join in discussions with their co-workers.
I’ve sometimes had the honour of captioning alongside people at some of their hardest moments and other times have been able to be there for their greatest achievements. It’s not for the faint-hearted as you never know what each day might bring. But it is a privilege. It is rewarding. I’ve recently seen the quote, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” It’s true: it does make me want to do my job better!
At a recent job a client introduced me as “My captioner”. I was so chuffed she was willing to take ownership of me and my work. It’s certainly better than the client claiming they’d never seen me before and had no clue what I was doing there! Being helpful or giving a smile or friendly conversation costs me very little but the thrill of the client allowing me to be part of their life moments is worth so much more than monetary payment. It adds something to my life. This is the real reward of the job. (The free lunches aren’t bad either!)
There’s a lot of talk about inclusion and accessibility in the workplace these days. Live captioning is part of that discussion. It’s great that businesses are providing captioning support for conferences and meetings, and one-on-one for employees or clients who are hearing-impaired or have English as a second language, but are businesses being deliberate enough with their approach? Don’t you want to get the most you can out of what you’ve paid for? Below are a few simple ways to be more deliberate, and therefore effective, in providing captions for your employees or conference and meeting attendees.
Presenters need to consider the rate at which they speak or present their material. This is important for everyone in the room because if the delivery rate is too fast, people will start to struggle to absorb the information and switch off. This is an even more important factor for a hearing-impaired person because they have to be able to read and comprehend the captions on the screen. Consider your delivery rate and if you’re a fast speaker, be conscious of trying to slow it down a bit.
Consider Adding More Breaks
Reading and comprehension, particularly of jargonistic content, requires a lot of processing by the eyes and the brain. Whilst a hearing person can look around the room and refocus their eyes while also listening to the presentation, a hearing-impaired person is focussed on the screen, sometimes for hours, without a break. It’s exhausting! I’ve had clients who have expressed that they felt they wanted to “climb the walls” after a long conference or training day. Being serious about inclusion and accessibility means being serious about making things better for the person we’re making it inclusive and accessible for. So please consider adding a few extra short breaks in a long presentation or long days.
The more information the captioner has before the event, the better the captions will be. Help us to be able to identify speakers, use jargon correctly, spell words and names correctly and so many other things. The more we know and understand, the better the quality of the captions and the more those using the captions will be able to understand and follow. Being deliberate means, where possible, providing prep material like agendas/itineraries, attendees, speeches and PowerPoint presentations.
Let People Know It’s Being Captioned
So many times I go to events and someone comes up to me and says, “I didn’t know this was being captioned. It’s such a relief to see you here.” And I have also had an occasion where I’ve been told by a person that they will not attend an event because captioning won’t be provided. If you’re going to engage a captioner, make sure you let the intended audience know so they can plan to come along. Tell everyone about it.
These suggestions certainly aren’t exhaustive but will help to make your audience's captioning experience better. Be deliberate about how you provide captions so that those using it can have the best experience and you can get the most bang for your buck.
The contents of this post is probably nothing new to most court reporters but yesterday I was onsite with a client and during our conversation I remembered I’d emailed her some information I’d received myself via email quite some years ago now about what an expert witness had to say regarding how the brain of a court reporter (captioner) works. As a steno, I think it’s interesting but she also found it interesting, so I thought I’d share it again here. Thanks to the person who forwarded it to me in the first place:
“HOW DO THEY DO THAT?
As a court reporter I am asked many, many times, “How do you do that?” And while I try to explain that writing live, voice-to-text realtime – where the spoken word is instantaneously translated into readable text via a trained shorthand court reporter (me), sophisticated software which contains my English dictionary, and a computer – is much like playing concert piano; a neuropsychologist, testifying in a U.S. Federal Court had this to say about the process of writing shorthand in regard to the complexity of the human brain:
Neuropsychologist: May I give an example of this?
Neuropsychologist: Okay. If you look — and the example is this: Our brains are a miracle. Okay? They’re a miracle that needs to be protected. And if you look at the court reporter right now, as an example, okay, this is a miracle in progress happening right before your eyes.
Let me just explain what she needs to do. I am speaking, so the information has to come in through her ear into her temporal lobe, and it has to go log itself into the language center. She has to be able to comprehend what I’m saying.
Then it has to get rerouted to the prefrontal cortex where it has to hold — she has to be able to hold the information, because, you know, I continuously talk so she has to hold it. Right? Then she has to analyze it, integrate it and synthesize it. Then it has to go back to the cerebellum and she has to be able to execute this, and she has to be able to then convert my words into those little squiggly marks. Have you ever seen court reporters have little squiggly language things?
So she has to convert it into a different language, and the white matter tracts allow her to reroute all of this information simultaneously without effort. Okay.
We take our brains for granted. She’s sitting here. I’m probably talking too fast for her, but she’s able to do this simultaneously. Seamlessly. Okay?
No animal on the planet can do this. All right? That’s why I believe court reporters will never be replaced. Because no technical — no technology could replace the beauty of that brain and the miracle of that brain. And that’s why your brain should always be protected and you should take care of it. It takes a special brain to be a court reporter.
Hey folks, it’s all in a day’s work! This in part explains why it is so difficult to become a court reporter – there is only a 10% success rate of those who enrol in a court reporting program. Like the concert pianist, only a few will ever reach the abilities required to deliver accurate realtime or CART/captioning services.”
On a sunny winter’s afternoon last year I captioned an unusual event (at least for a captioner) that explored the “relationship between law and listening, justice and the acoustic”.
In the opening address it was said, “All of these will explore, in different ways, ideas and practices at the intersections of law, sound and listening. As for today, our intention is to work with the courtroom, its technologies, norms and procedures as our medium. When audio evidence is heard in court, these are the speakers that are used and the screens that are used for testimony provided by videolink often from prisons around Australia. Max and Carol are court officers. Carmel is a stenographer. What we want to do is work with and against the ordinary principles of courtroom morality to extend and overreach them in order to make them audible and so susceptible to fatigue.”
Hang on...rewind...what? It was certainly different to a normal courtroom and at one point I even had to caption the ambient sounds of the room rather than the testimony!
It turned out to be a great afternoon and although highly unusual (and therefore stressful) for someone like me, we all had a lot of fun. Yes, I had fun at work! How many people can say that?
The event was held at the Commonwealth Law Courts in Melbourne. Last week I received photos from the event and I’m posting some here for you to look at. I particularly like the one of my steno machine. What a beautiful photo taken by Keelan O’Hehir.
If you follow the CaptionsLIVE Facebook page (@clstenography), you will have already seen this post on there. This is my first attempt at blogging and I hope to do more and get better at it!
Today is the end of an era for court reporters in Victoria and I have been reflecting on what it means to be a stenographer in the Australian workplace. At most of my jobs someone asks if I’m worried about technology making my career redundant. No, I am not in the least bit concerned. I don’t understand why it’s an either/or proposition. Why does it have to be technology or a physical stenographer? Why can’t the two work together? That’s exactly what I, and my colleagues, do and by doing so produce an amazing result for our clients. (It’s an honour to do my work at CaptionsLIVE. The clients are lovely and the steno contractors are simply outstanding at what they do.) Technology is good, but it can never match the beauty and wonder of the human brain!
So how has the industry changed? The main change is that some State Governments have moved away from having large court reporting agencies, staffed by machine shorthand writers, servicing their courts. In those States the most prominent areas of work for stenographers are broadcast captioning, CART and real-time. It’s really just a change of focus and it means there are a lot more freelance stenographers out there. The industry isn’t dying; just evolving. There is still a strong industry out there for those brave enough to take it on.
So as I reflect on these changes I think back to the days of four on a court, typing committals on a typewriter inside a glass box (Does anyone know if those boxes have a name?), typing up your own steno notes or reading them to a typist - the days of getting it down and sorting out the intricacies and conflicts later. Now it’s all instant (real-time) and you have to have it “all sorted” before your hands even strike the keys and the text hits the screen.
Today we lost another government court reporting agency, this time in Victoria. To the VGRS court reporters - thanks for all your years of service and all the best for the future.
There’s so much more to be said, but I’ll leave it there...for today. Let’s get this conversation around our industry in Australia, and all we have to offer, started.