Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How I Got Here

Often I'm asked, "What made you become a CART provider?" The short answer is that I was a freelance transcriptionist who became frustrated with the slow pace of qwerty and went looking for a better way, which turned out to be steno. The slightly more detailed answer can be read on my website's bio page. And last May I made a 35-second clip connecting the dots from there to here using YouTube's nifty Search Stories Video Creator.

But the longer answer, of course, is that this career was a long time in coming. In case you're interested in the details, here's the story of my work history over the past 12 years.

* 1998: I graduated high school and went to work in the pit orchestra of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse in Bigfork, Montana, playing violin, trumpet, and bassoon. I would eventually work there for four summers in all, and during my second summer I did some volunteer play therapy and babysitting for a six-year-old boy who had autism. I also made the acquaintance of a woman who worked as a TTY operator, a job I'd heard of but had never seriously considered. Looking back, I think that those two experiences together made me want to learn more about disability advocacy, though I didn't put the thought into action until some time later.

* 1998 - 2002: I went to St. John's College, spending two years at the Annapolis campus and two years at the Santa Fe campus. While I was there, I had various work-study jobs, including as a dishwasher in the cafeteria and as an assistant for Sophomore music classes, which gave me the opportunity to help students with listening skills, sight singing, paper writing, and counterpoint.

* 2002: I graduated from St. John's, and after taking a few post-baccalaureate premedical classes at Towson University, I decided that I didn't actually want to be a doctor, so I headed back home to Montana to weigh my options. Shortly after settling in, I got a job at the Missoula Developmental Service Corporation, working in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. I worked there for a year and a half and learned a great deal from my clients -- not least that I really enjoyed providing support services to people.

* 2004: Just a few months before I was supposed to ship out to Morocco with the Peace Corps, I met my current partner over the internet and visited NYC to see what would happen next. Long story short, I gave the Peace Corps my regrets and decided to move to NYC instead. When I got here, I found a very pleasant but low-paying job at Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The employee book discount was fabulous, but I was having trouble making ends meet, so I found a job assisting a retired lawyer who had developed ALS and needed basic supportive care. She was an excellent employer, and she taught me how to do my job efficiently and discreetly, without unnecessarily disrupting the daily course of her life. While working for her, I decided to apply to Hunter College's MA program in British and American Literature, mostly because I wasn't sure what to do next, and because it sounded like a fun way to spend a few more years reading books. Unfortunately, when I got my acceptance letter, I realized that tuition would be hard to come by considering what I was making at the time, and that my prospects for supporting myself after getting the MA weren't much better.

* 2005: Switching between the graveyard shift during the week and a daytime schedule on the weekends was getting difficult to keep up, so I reluctantly said goodbye to my employer as she left to spend a summer in Maine, and found a job transcribing audio tapes of television shows (mostly reality shows) for pre-production editing scripts. That was when I realized that, as fast as I could write on a qwerty keyboard, it was nowhere near fast enough to keep up with even a moderate rate of speech. I knew there had to be a better way, so I looked up "stenography" on Wikipedia. I read the article, getting more and more excited, and started thinking about ways I could use that sort of skill, once I developed it. Sure, it would help me at the pre-production job, but I didn't want to be transcribing reality shows forever. I could use it to caption live TV broadcasts, but again, that wasn't exactly my cup of tea. Court reporting? It sounded like a challenge, but I wasn't sure I wanted to sit between two sets of shouting lawyers every day. Finally, as my eye moved down the article, I saw my first mention of CART. How had I never heard of this before? Working in colleges and universities, transcribing classes for Deaf and hard of hearing students? It would be like going to graduate school and getting a free education, while making an actual living! Plus I wouldn't just have to choose any one subject to study -- I could learn a little bit of everything. That settled it. I wrote Hunter and told them I wouldn't be accepting their offer. I enrolled at the local Court Reporting school and sent my resume out to every offline captioning company in the five boroughs so that I could get more experience in actual captioning standards, as opposed to just pre-production transcription. One company hired me, and I was on my way.

* 2005 - 2007: I worked hard transcribing television for captioning (mostly cooking shows, DIY home repair shows, and home decorating shows, with the occasional comedy special or, sigh, reality show) during the day on the qwerty keyboard and went to night school learning steno. On the weekends I made a little extra cash transcribing shows for freelance per-minute rates, on top of the weekly quota I had to manage between Monday and Friday. In the beginning, I'd sit at my steno machine all day just to bang out a 20-minute show. I was still learning my theory and my software, but the more I did it, the easier it came, and soon I was earning enough on the weekend to take my partner out for fancy dinners and even to sock away some savings. Eventually I was even able to switch over from qwerty to steno during the week and still keep up my quota. A year and a half to the day after starting steno school, I passed my last 225 WPM test, and then I spent six months working closely with a professional CART provider, improving my realtime writing and learning the tricks of the trade in all sorts of contexts, from museum lectures to college classes to support group meetings. At the end of those six months, she determined that my writing was quick enough and clean enough to start working for her. I subcontracted with her for two semesters, CARTing the classes that she thought I could handle and further improving my speed and my dictionary.

* 2007 - now: My mentor mostly worked in New Jersey and I wanted to stay in the City, so after a year of very valuable training I decided to start StenoKnight CART Services and head off on my own. After quitting my full-time captioning job, I also began working on a freelance basis with The Caption Coalition, captioning prescripted plays and musicals on and off Broadway. I got my CCP, RPR, and CBC and continued working to get faster and cleaner, providing CART in many different subjects at a number of NYC colleges and other venues. I also got the idea for The Plover Project and started gradually working on making it happen. Along the way, I realized that I was completely supporting myself and my partner with my CART business, which was a wonderful feeling. I paid off the loan I'd gotten from a family friend to buy my commercial steno software within the first year and every year since then I've worked to develop my skills and improve my equipment, first buying my wireless tablet, then my LCD projector, and then getting into remote CART, including my current weekly gig captioning That Keith Wann Show. I've also been taking ASL for about two years now, and I can hold my own in a casual conversation, though I've still got a lot of work to do before I'm fluent. I'll be going for my RMR certification soon, and after that, who knows? My long-term goal is to CART a student through medical school, and my short-term goal is to finish writing Steno 101.

I'm looking forward to the days when I say the words "I'm a CART provider" and no one says, "You mean, like, to the guys who sell the hot dogs on the corner?" This career has been around for almost 20 years now, but its profile is still far too small, and I want to do my part in expanding it. On the personal front, I don't know what my business will look like in five years -- whether it'll be bigger or smaller or about the same; still based in NYC, largely remote, or somewhere else entirely -- but as long as I'm in front of my machine, writing the words of professors and college students and learning a bit for myself along the way, I'll be happy.


  1. Amazing story! Thank you for sharing. I also applaud your memory and the descriptive details. Cool StenoKnight cartoon too!

    I got into the program after seeing firsthand as a CODA kid how important and helpful captioning can be to everyone, hearing and Deaf alike.

    I plan to do court/depos right after I get out of school but would love to CART church services someday and then who knows what else!

  2. I've been meaning to comment on your post for the last week because I connected so deeply to your story! I truly feel that my life experiences have led me to this career in a similar way that yours have.

    I grew up in a family of educators and was always involved in the classroom experience from day one. I went to school to get my B.S. in English Education, and while doing so worked at an alternative high school down the street. Many of the students had disabilities and I learned quite a bit from that experience. After college my first gig was working as a TypeWell transcriptionist, which led me to discover CART providing, naturally. So my combined love of language, education, and disability awareness really brought me to where I am today. You are right that this career has such a small profile at this point in time. I look forward to any opportunity I get to describe the communication access process. It is a sophisticated exchange that can be so fulfilling to both parties.

    The promise of someday providing CART services is what motivates me to constantly work harder to improve my accuracy and speed. You're a shining light for this profession - you've got a clear and purposeful voice. Thanks for sharing "your story" in more depth, because I think it's pretty significant.

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