Saturday, February 23, 2013

How CART Helped Me Sneak into STEM

I'm terrible at math. I always have been. Despite coming from a family of engineers and teachers (including at least one math teacher, who gave me what turned out to be one of my favorite books as a kid, though unfortunately it didn't rub off all that well), I've never had a talent for it, and when I was younger I had a tendency not to work hard at anything that didn't come naturally. Hint for any small humans who might be reading this: This is a really bad habit to get into. It will come back to bite you in the butt so many times. Repair those small deficiencies when they're small, no matter how much of a grind it might be. You'll thank me later. Anyway, my dislike for arithmetic in elementary school turned into barely passing algebra in middle school turned into failing physics in high school. When I got to college, I had to take four years of math, but fortunately for me it was "Great Books"-style math, where I had to read Euclid and Ptolemy and Lobachevsky and Einstein and talk about them on an abstract level, but never had to take any actual tests on them. Even so, my math grades in college were not particularly great, and I emerged with a B.A. in Liberal Arts plus a pretty deep-seated math phobia. The frustrating thing is that I think math is pretty interesting, even though I have no aptitude to actually do it. And more than that, I absolutely love science, and so much of science is underpinned by math. Right out of college, I briefly enrolled in a post-baccalaureate science program, with the intention of applying to medical school, but the amount of math involved quickly forced me to give up and put that long-held dream on the shelf. I stuck to what I was good at and applied to an MA program in English, which I eventually turned down so that I could go to steno school. It was only after starting work as a CART provider that I realized what a gift I'd been given. Despite my lousy math scores and dreadful number crunching skills, I'd be able to sit in all sorts of math and science classes that people had sweated bullets to test into. I could absorb as much of the material as my brain would let me, and as long as I wrote the words down correctly, it didn't matter if I didn't grok some of the concepts. I wouldn't have to prove my fitness to be there. No tests, no papers, no chance of being called on. I got to be a fly on the wall, getting paid to help my brilliant clients flex their own math and science muscles while I sat back and marveled. Over the years I've been CARTing, I've worked for future economists, architects, pharmacists, doctors, and dentists. Along the way, I've gotten to take in:

Math for Economists
Financial Instruments
International Taxation
Intro to General Relativity
Economics for Urban Planners
Advanced Statistical Methods
Architectural Structures: Steel and Concrete

Plus a ton of gigs that involved anywhere from a drabble to a torrent of math, such as:

Thermal and Statistical Physics
Meetings of Math for America
Meetings of the American Chemical Society

(You can read the complete list, if you're interested, on my Experience Page.)

Even though I don't think I'd be able to recall more than a small fraction of what I've learned in these classes, it's still way more exposure to these subjects than I ever would have been able to get if I'd done it the old fashioned way. Even getting out of the 101 level courses would have been a struggle, but the graduate and professional school material that I've been exposed to would have been stratospherically above my cognitive pay grade. And yet... There I was, sitting in the classes, absorbing all this cool information about the structures and systems that make up our universe. I've even developed sort of a specialty in captioning technical and scientific material. It's my favorite sort of job to take. All for someone who barely managed to learn her times tables. I'll never be a doctor, and I've made my peace with that, but I still get to swim in this stuff every day. Of all the gifts CART has given me, this might be the one I'm most grateful for.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Temporarily Non-Disabled

Some disability rights activists, understandably objecting to obnoxious terms like "able-bodied", occasionally refer to non-disabled people semi-facetiously as "temporarily non-disabled". Tongue-in-cheek or not, it's factually true. The disability community is often called The Largest Minority, because virtually every human being who doesn't die a sudden and premature death will join it eventually. Of course, there's a big difference between people who are born with a disability or acquired it relatively young and people who become disabled as a consequence of aging. Many older people don't consider themselves part of the disability community. Negotiating a sensory, mobility, or cognitive disability can look very different when someone is settling into sedate retirement, versus when they're trying to navigate employment, education, and relationships, while laying the groundwork for the next several decades in their lives.

Because I work in the accessibility industry, I think about disability a lot. I'm currently the only breadwinner in my household and we might start planning for a kid in the next few years, so I have to anticipate any possible disruptions in income and make contingency plans for them. Any number of things could happen. The student loan crisis could explode, making the number of people receiving higher education very different from what it looks like right now. I might have to transition out of academic CART and start specializing in CART for deaf professionals or public events. A lot of people worry about speech recognition replacing stenographers, but I think that's pretty unlikely, as I've explained in my CART Problem Solving Series. What could happen, though, is a restructuring of case law pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act. If a precedent were established that providing captioning accommodations is an unreasonable burden for companies, schools, or event organizers -- or that verbatim captioning is a luxury, and deaf or hard of hearing people are only entitled to non-verbatim notetaking or summarizing services such as C-Print or Typewell -- my job situation would look very different. Even if the amount of work available stays essentially the same, rates could fall, and I might have to settle for taking home less money while doing the same amount of work. The number of CART providers could fall so drastically due to retirement and lack of qualified graduates that CART could be replaced as the gold standard of speech-to-text accommodation simply due to lack of supply for the growing demand. Anything could happen.

By and large (disability advocacy and steno promotion projects like Plover aside), most of that stuff is out of my control. The captioning business will do what it will do, and I'll have to navigate whatever changes are ahead. I'm saving money, establishing good relationships with fellow captioners, building connections with international firms in case the disability access situation in the US gets dicey, and providing the best service I possibly can to my clients while they're in school, knowing that someday soon they'll be successful professionals who will continue to need occasional captioning. But what if I acquired a disability that interfered with my ability to caption? Since my trade involves my ears, eyes, hands, and brain, it leaves me quadruply vulnerable.

Sight loss would be the easiest to adapt to without seriously affecting my career. There are quite a few blind and low vision stenographers out there. I'd probably learn Braille and buy a refreshable Braille display to confirm that my steno strokes are translating correctly. It might take me a while to get back up to speed, but I think I could make it work. Hearing is another story, of course, since it's the fundamental basis of the service I'm providing. So far my hearing is pretty darn good (as I confirmed last weekend when I was able to pick up very quiet questions from the back of the audience during a recent theater talkback; lots of people told me afterwards that they couldn't make out a word without reading the captions), but my dad developed significant early hearing loss, and while in his case there was a specific noise exposure precipitating it, I don't want to get too cocky about my so-far functional ears. As I mentioned in the previous post, a third of people over 65 have some degree of hearing loss, and as a freelancer, I don't have an employer-run pension fund, so I would be a little nervous about finances if I were forced to stop working at 65. While I try to protect my hearing by listening to music at a fairly low volume and keeping out of loud nightclubs, I take the subway every day, and the sound of those trains rattling by is pretty cataclysmic. I've contemplated wearing earplugs during my morning commute, but I'd miss listening to music and podcasts. I might compromise by buying a set of expensive noise-blocking earbuds sometime soon. While there are a few acknowledged hard of hearing court reporters and ASL interpreters out there, I've never spoken to any CART providers who have admitted to having hearing loss. If I did start losing my hearing, it would definitely be a tricky thing to balance being fair to my clients by not providing them substandard service while not counting myself out of the game too early. I'd probably switch from onsite CART to only doing remote CART jobs with excellent quality (i.e. direct line) audio, and I'd have to keep testing myself to make sure that I didn't miss or misinterpret anything that I heard.

And what about my hands? Even though I love it, I've decided not to go downhill skiing anymore. The fun of it wouldn't erase the risk of falling and breaking a wrist or a finger. Even if it healed completely, I'd be out of the game for months, and I'd hate to think how much speed and accuracy (not to mention income) I'd have to make up when I was able to start writing again. While I have long-term disability insurance, I love this job too much to jeopardize it for some cheap thrills. On the other hand, I don't want to wear bubble wrap and wrist guards everywhere I go. I still ride my Razor scooter around town, and I play video games heedless of any potential (really rather small) risk of repetitive strain injury. Trying to guard against every possible contingency is a fool's errand. You do what you can, hope that your luck holds out, and figure out workarounds when it doesn't.

The simple fact is this: Disability can affect anyone, no matter how much they try to avert it. If something happened to me that prevented me from providing CART, I'd have to find an alternative career. The good thing about working within the disability community is that acquiring a disability isn't an instant mark against your prospects the way it is in most of the non-disabled employment sector. It's illegal, unjust, and wrong-headed, but too many companies rely on unfounded prejudices in their hiring decisions, and they assume a disabled employee will be expensive, high-maintenance, incompetent, unreliable, et cetera, ad nauseam. In fact, employees with disabilities demonstrate improved retention and loyalty and are often better workers than their non-disabled peers, due to a high level of ingenuity and technical knowledge, plus a general tendency not to take their jobs for granted.

If I ever do develop a disability that prevents me from providing CART, I have a feeling that the connections I've made within the disability and accessibility communities will be able to give me some solid ideas on searching for new employment. Also, by that point, The Plover Project will hopefully have found its wings, and I might be able to devote my time to spreading the word about the fantastic usefulness of steno both for people who don't use their voices to speak and for anyone who wants to write text swiftly, fluently, and efficiently while minimizing the risk of the repetitive stress injuries commonly seen in frequent qwerty use.

Of course, there's no need to borrow trouble. With any luck, I'll be providing CART for many decades to come. But I'm glad that my job has led me to be more aware of the potential for disability, so that I can plan for the possibility if it should arise. As the saying goes, forewarned is half an octopus.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Conference Captioning

I really enjoy open captioning on the big screen for conferences and professional events, but I don't get the chance to do it as often as I'd like. Partly that's because my weekday schedule is pretty full, so I'm only available on weekends. But partly it's because, while captioning is an extremely useful accommodation for many people, most of those people either don't know that captioning exists or that they have the right to request it from the organizers of the conference. In the USA, one in seven people have hearing loss. For people over 65, that rate goes up to one in three. Events at most conferences seat hundreds of people, so statistically it's a sure bet that at least some of those people would benefit from captioning. Even people with mild hearing loss, who do quite well in one-on-one social situations by using a combination of residual hearing, lip reading, and context clues, often have trouble with conference audio, which can be distorted in the amplification process, and which puts the speaker so far away from the audience that lipreading becomes impossible. There's also the benefits that captioning can offer people without hearing loss, who may be more comfortable reading written English than understanding spoken English (very common when English isn't a person's first language), or who may have central audio processing issues (very common in Aspergers and autism) or attention deficit issues such as ADHD. I remember one event I captioned, when I looked over my shoulder and saw a bevy of Samsung executives all reading my captions with great excitement. Their English was excellent, but the rate of American speech was sometimes too quick for them to parse comfortably, so they found the captions incredibly useful in making sure that they were getting everything. After the event, one of them asked if I would be willing to move to Korea so I could caption all of their English language meetings, but I told him regretfully that I needed to stay in New York. Even non-disabled native English speakers often find captioning helpful when trying to assimilate a large amount of rapid-fire information; captioning can give them correct spellings of difficult words, allow them to take more detailed notes, and provide dual-sensory feedback by sending the same information to their eyes and ears at the same time, which improves memory and retention. After every event I caption, I get dozens of people coming up to me and saying how useful they found the captioning. Some of those people self-identify as deaf or hard of hearing, but the majority do not. So why isn't conference captioning more common? There are a number of reasons:

• People don't request captions. Refer back to that figure I mentioned up above. Of those one in seven people with hearing loss, very few feel comfortable requesting captioning. It takes an average of five years between the onset of hearing loss and a person admitting that they have it, even to themselves. There's still a tremendous amount of social stigma involved in admitting hearing loss. They don't like talking about it, and many would suffer through the frustrations of inaudible speech and missed information than ask for any special treatment. Even for people who realize that they can't hear very well in a large lecture hall, so few of them have seen or heard of captioning, that most wouldn't know to ask for it in the first place.

• Conferences don't want to pay for it. Captioners come with a certain amount of sticker shock, it's true, but I think the problem is more that it's an unfamiliar service, and the value of it is not clear to the people in charge of deciding what to spend their attendees' money on. Thirty years ago, most conference organizers would balk at the idea of having to supply a computer, projector, and screen to every room so that each presenter could display PowerPoint slides, but these days it's de rigueur. Food costs money. Chairs cost money. Event space costs money. By adding a small surcharge to each attendee's ticket price, the captioning could be paid for quite easily, but organizers need to be convinced of its value first, and that's difficult to do because of the relative rarity of captioning right now. It needs to build up a certain amount of recognition and momentum before it's truly accepted as an ordinary conference amenity, like free wi-fi or complimentary lanyards. I've found that it's often easier to get the sponsors of conferences to pay for the captioning than to ask the organizers themselves. The companies that sponsor conferences like to be seen providing a public service, and accessibility is becoming a mark of good citizenship. If you propose captioning at a conference and the organizer swears that it's impossible (which, incidentally, is a violation of the ADA, but there's not much you can do to enforce that, short of a lawsuit), ask them if any of their sponsors would like to pay for the captioning in exchange for prominent billing. Also, whenever possible, ask organizers to survey their attendees after every captioned conference. The more positive feedback they get from people who appreciated the captions, the more likely they are to offer captioning in the future.

• CART provider availability is limited. Again, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem; there isn't enough conference captioning to supply a typical provider's schedule on its own, so most providers pay the bills with academic captioning. Academic captioning schedules tend to conflict with all but weekend conferences. Conferences sometimes reach out to providers, only to find that no one's available. Captioning is put back in the "impossible" column, and the cycle perpetuates itself. I think the only solution is to increase the amount of conference captioning, so that some providers can specialize in it, and not be forced to tie themselves down to academic schedules.

• Reserved caption seating is often counterproductive. I've captioned at a few events in the past few weeks, and two of them employed a captioning section, near the CART screens. Of course, this was better than no captioning at all, but it still wasn't ideal. For one thing, the seatbacks had "reserved for CART" posted on them by the conference staff. At one conference these seats were nearly all occupied a group of self-identified late deafened people, who had requested the captioning in advance, and it worked out fairly well, even though looking out into the crowd I saw dozens of people over 65, many of whom almost certainly had some hearing loss, who were unable to benefit from the captions due to the screen size and placement. At the other conference, nearly all the "reserved for CART" seats were empty for several hours until I got wise and removed them. Then they all filled up with people who followed the captions avidly and made a point to come up and thank me afterwards, telling me how useful they'd found them. The problem was that word "reserved". It makes people think that they've got to be on some list before they're allowed to sit there, and many people who need captions stay away from those seats, because they assume they must not be in the "reserved" group. The solution, of course, is to avoid small projector screens and caption vs. non-caption seating whenever possible; providing open captions to the entire room (and, if the event has a simultaneous webcast, to the internet as well) by using large centralized screens. I'm very excited about Text On Top, a new device that seems to allow CART providers to overlay their captions on the presenter's own PowerPoint slides. Up until now it's only been available in Europe, but it just came out in the United States, and I'll be buying one soon. I'll probably put a review of it up here, so stay tuned.

For a great discussion of event accessibility from a consumer's perspective, read CART or ASL or ALD by Svetlana Kouznetsova on her excellent Audio Accessibility page. She goes into the intricacies of when CART is preferred to Sign Language interpretation (and vice versa) and the logistical tradeoffs of employing each accommodation. I hope that eventually captioning will become second nature to all organizers of large events, without it having to be specifically requested each time, but for now I'm grateful for each conference I get the chance to caption. The more people see it, the more they'll want it.