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How to Hire a Realtime Captioner
Oregon's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (ODHHS)-Technical Assistance Center
ODHHS Information and Technical Assistance Series

How to Hire a Realtime Captioner
(Source: Gary Robson, Cheetah Systems and
Kevin Daniel of Bay Area Captioning)
See also "A Glance at Realtime" (includes Oregon info)
So you want to have some realtime captioning done. Now what? Finding the captioner is a bit more difficult than finding an interpreter or a technician, because there just aren´t as many of them.
Every captioning job is different, so there´s no one answer to where to find a captioner. This document provides some general guidelines that can help you get the best person or firm for the job.
To start with, you can get names of realtime captioners from a number of sources, including captioning equipment vendors (such as Cheetah Systems), your local yellow pages, organizations that use captioners (like CAL-TVA). Once you have some names, talk to the captioners, and ask questions like these:
  • Do they have applicable experience? If you want someone for broadcast TV, don´t pick a captioner that only does meetings. If you will have deaf people speaking, make sure they´ve worked with deaf people before.
  • Do they have adequate staffing? Not a problem for a single meeting, this becomes a big issue for an annual news contract. If you´ll be using them on an ongoing basis, make sure there are enough people to cover the hours required, and extra for vacations, sick days, emergencies, and so on.
  • Do they have appropriate credentials? The CSR and/or the RPR should be the minimum qualification considered for captioning applicants. The CM or RMR is an indication of accuracy under high speed conditions and is desirable. The CRR most directly relates to the type of writing entailed in captioning, but at relatively slow speeds. The RDR is an indication of a broad range of knowledge, including court reporting, captioning, computers and general business management. On the back of this page is a list of what all these credentials mean.
  • Do they have all required equipment? Make sure that the captioner has everything required for the job beforehand, so you don´t end up with a last-minute panic.
  • Check their references. Just as with any other contractor or employee, check references before making your final decision. Talk to people they´ve worked for in the past. Ask not only about the quality of their work, but their reliability as well. If they have any NCRA credentials, these can be verified with NCRA. Similarly, complaints regarding their court reporting performance can be checked with the state´s CSR Board.
  • Do they have backup? Especially important for recurring or emergency coverage, this includes not only backup equipment, but backup personnel as well. If the captioner will be working from their own home or studio, this should include at least a second phone line, second TV, UPS (uninterruptable power supply, for power outages), and backup modem. Even better is a second computer system and steno keyboard, and a backup generator for long-term emergencies. There should be enough people to cover everything you need even with somebody out sick. Make sure, also, that their captioning equipment came from a reputable vendor that can help them if problems arise.
  • See their work! If you are accepting bids for a large contract (e.g. a year of captioning work), it is quite reasonable to ask to see the applicant´s work. Make sure you see it on something comparable to what you do (if you need a sports captioner, watch their sports captions). Be aware, however, that it is a lot of work for a captioner to build a job-specific steno dictionary with all of the proper names and special terminology for your specific needs. Look for speed, consistency, and accuracy with standard English vocabulary. If that is handled well, they´ll be able to adapt to your needs.
One of the toughest questions to answer relates to rates. They range all over the map, from tens of dollars per hour to hundreds of dollars per hour. Remember that these factors affect rates:
  • Time. A captioning job requires unpaid preparation time. If you´re paying for a one-hour broadcast or seminar, there´s at least three hours of work involved. Also, remember that captioners usually work alone, unlike sign interpreters who work in pairs and trade off for long presentations.
  • Equipment. Obviously, someone who is providing $25,000 worth of equipment will charge more than someone who is requiring you to rent equipment for them.
  • Experience. Just as with any other profession, you pay more for the seasoned professionals.
  • Notice. If you wait until the last possible minute to call, you will almost certainly end up paying more.
Captioning Terminology
All in all, hiring a captioner is no different than hiring any other professional on contract. Check them out beforehand, pay them what they´re worth, and things will work out well.
Captioned data that is pre-entered in the computer, and allows to display automatically at a predetermined speed.
Placing words on a video picture, as opposed to text-only displays like CART.
"Computer-Assisted RealTime." This consists of realtime text displayed on a computer monitor or television screen, with no video picture.
Closed Captioning
Captions that are "encoded" (hidden) in the blanking interval of the TV signal, invisible without a decoder.
Computerized Notetaking
The use of a fast typist to simulate realtime by typing a summary of events as they happen. These notes can be displayed as standard captions.
The device that makes closed captions visible on your TV.
The device that "hides" captions in a TV signal to create closed captions.
Live Display
Prescripted captions that are "hand timed" by a captioner to synchronize with spoken words. Used when somebody is reading from a script or a TelePrompTer.
Offline Captioning
Captioning done on a videotape in a studio. This does not require a realtime stenocaptioner.
Online Captioning
Captioning done "on the fly" as something is happening, typically a live event or newscast. Captions can be realtime, live display, autoscroll, or computerized notes.
Open Captioning
Captions that are visible as subtitles on the TV picture, not requiring a decoder, and not able to be turned off.
The translation of spoken words to written text on a screen, as they are spoken. This requires a court reporter or captioner using a steno keyboard, computer, and translation software.
Someone who can perform realtime captioning.
Captioning Credentials
There is no governing body for captioners, so you must look for credentials assigned either by the state board overseeing court reporters, or by the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA). The skills and knowledge required for these credentials are similar to those required for captioning, and anyone capable of doing broadcast-quality captioning work can easily attain at least the CSR and/or RPR.
For work that doesn´t require broadcast quality and experience (such as captioning an informal meeting or a class for a student), a less-expensive alternative is to use court reporting students that have invested in realtime CAT equipment.
  • CSR - Certified Shorthand Reporter, a state certification, differing from state to state. In California, it consists of writing and transcribing four-voice question and answer testimony at speeds up to 225 words per minute (WPM), and includes a written examination relating to court reporting duties.
  • RPR - Registered Professional Reporter, given by NCRA. The skills portion consists of writing and transcribing Q&A testimony at 225 WPM, jury instructions at 200 WPM, and literary dictation at 180 WPM. It includes a written knowledge portion relating to court reporting duties.
  • CM or RMR - Certificate of Merit or Registered Merit Reporter, given by NCRA. The skills portion consists of writing and transcribing Q&A testimony at 260 WPM, jury instructions at 240 WPM, and literary dictation at 220 WPM. It includes a more difficult written test relating to court reporting duties.
  • CRR - Certified Realtime Reporter, given by NCRA, designed to test writing and technical skills relating to realtime court reporting and captioning. The test consists of setting up realtime computer equipment and writing literary dictation at speeds ranging from 180 to 200 WPM. The examinee is graded on the accuracy of the test as written in realtime. The final portion of the test involves copying the unedited file to a 3.5" floppy in ASCII format.
  • RDR - Registered Diplomate Reporter, given by NCRA, designed to test a broad range of knowledge associated with court reporting, captioning and related subjects. The highest certification currently attainable, the examinee must first qualify in one of three ways:
    1. Have passed and held the RMR for a minimum of 5 years; or
    2. Have passed the RMR and also hold a Bachelor´s Degree; or
    3. Have passed the RMR, in addition to any two other NCRA tests.