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Accessibility for all
Real-time captioning receives recognition
Patricia Graves
“Since 1989, I have been providing communication access real-time translation (CART) services and I have never looked back. In my heart, I feel this work is what I was meant to do with my life.”

Patricia Graves,
President, Caption First, Inc.
Winner of the Robert H. Weitbrecht Telecommunications Access Award, 2009

Real-time captioning
Real-time captioning can help people at conferences

The Robert H. Weitbrecht Telecommunications Access Award is given every two years by Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. (TDI) — an advocacy organization in the United States focusing on addressing equal access issues in telecommunications, media, and information technology. The award recognizes an individual, organization or company that has made an outstanding contribution to improving the accessibility of telecommunications, media and information technology for people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or deaf-blind.

Before instant messaging via computer, or texting on mobile phones, people with hearing impairments relied on a device called the teletypewriter, or TTY, connected to a phone. This device came into being because of Robert H. Weitbrecht (1920–1983), who was born deaf and grew up to become a physicist and a licensed amateur radio operator.

Weitbrecht became interested in Morse code in order to communicate with hearing people via radio. In 1950, he obtained a radio teletypewriter that could receive messages. He was able to modify it so that it could also send messages by radio. Deaf people who knew about his work asked him to adapt the radio teletypewriter so it could be used with a normal telephone. After years of work, he developed an acoustic coupler that allowed the TTY to be used with a telephone. In May 1964, Weitbrecht made the first long-distance phone call with a TTY.

Helping the deaf and hard-of-hearing

Communication access real-time translation

I was privileged to receive the Robert H. Weitbrecht Telecommunications Access Award at the 18th TDI Biennial International Conference, which took place in Washington, DC, United States, on 30 July–1 August 2009. It was in recognition of my “pioneering contributions in Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART) over the years.” CART involves two main processes: the translation of spoken English into machine shorthand, and the translation of machine shorthand into written English that appears as captioning on a screen. It is a technology that helps people with hearing impairments to play a full part in society and the workplace.

As I sat waiting to receive this award, I refl ected on my own professional journey. I started my career as a court reporter. I loved the work, and the field was challenging and rewarding. As technology evolved and software was developed that would take my stenographic notes and translate them into English text, I was challenged to hone my professional skills so that the text was instantly readable. Once I had achieved this, I chose to work with people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. Since 1989, I have been providing CART services and I have never looked back. In my heart, I feel this work is what I was meant to do with my life.

There is deafness in my family. My brother went to the Colorado Deaf and Blind School many years ago. I remember him learning sign language, wearing hearing aids and learning to lip-read. The philosophy of the time was not one of simultaneous communication. As a family we did not learn to sign, although my brother became fl uent in American Sign Language.

When I chose to go into this new field of access to communications, only a handful of my peers were involved. The company Caption First, of which I am president, had its beginnings in 1989 in Chicago and our focus was on captioning for television news. But after receiving a Federal grant for providing this service, the news broadcaster decided not to go forward with the project and we never had the opportunity to use the grant money. This turned into a blessing ultimately, as I was then able to focus on helping people directly. The company focused on making a difference in people’s personal and work lives through communication access real-time translation.

In the beginning, the CART technology consisted of an overhead projector and a liquid crystal display (LCD) panel, a tripod screen, and text enlargement software that ran with a DOS program. Time went on and the technology changed. The ability to support people remotely was a huge step forward. To do this, telephone lines were used initially, but now we are able to send text through the Internet at lightning speed and with a high degree of security.

The real-time text can be viewed by one person on a computer, or by several people in different locations at the same time. And for groups of people, the text can be projected onto a large screen. The latest breakthrough is the ability to have the audio sent to the CART provider and have the text delivered back to the same hand-held device almost simultaneously. This allows users to go to parties, exhibition halls, dinners — wherever — and to have communication access anywhere, any time, in an inconspicuous manner. Everyone has a mobile communication device in their hand nowadays!

The ability to merge real-time text with webcasts has been maturing and evolving. This technology is also leading to on-demand playback at the consumer’s convenience, as well as to an explosion of archived media becoming accessible.

A personal journey

Over the years I have had the privilege to witness people’s journeys with hearing loss, whether it was sudden, progressive or from birth. I have been a part of people’s lives as they learned sign language, adapted to hearing aids and received cochlear implants. I have witnessed communication failures, and I have had the privilege of helping communication to flow.

Because of this, I have learned lessons about adapting, planning, asking for support, acceptance, and finding humour in difficult situations. These life lessons have helped me in my personal journey, and with the substantial loss of vision that I have recently had to deal with. Because of the experiences of my deaf friends and colleagues, my journey has been made easier, and I am grateful.

Why was I chosen to receive the Robert Weitbrecht Telecommunication Access Award? I would like to believe it is because I listen carefully to what is needed and then I find a way to “make it happen.” I would like to believe it is because I am an advocate for equality. I believe in a level-playing field, so that the users of CART and captioning can fail or succeed based on their own skills and expertise. I would like to believe I was chosen for this award because I stay ahead of the technology, always looking for ways to make the words fl ow smoothly to wherever consumers need to see them. I would like to believe I was chosen because of my dedication and passion for quality and professionalism.

Regardless of the reasons, I am deeply grateful for the honour. And I look forward to many more years of listening, learning, and making a difference in people’s lives.


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