Captioning Municpal Government
(Source: Gary Robson, Cheetah Systems and
Karen George, City of Fremont, Feb 1993)
After a hard day in front of your steno machine, you come home and click your remote control through 60 channels of cable TV. Just for interest, you flip on the decoder to monitor your peers who are working in the captioning business. What´s this? That local community channel is showing a public meeting-and it´s captioned?
The City of Fremont, California, and the Fremont Unified School District are breaking new ground. On November 17, 1992, the Fremont City Council cablecast its first meeting with open captioning, and Fremont has now become the first city in the United States to realtime caption every regular city council and school board meeting.
Responding to community need and fulfilling the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fremont purchased real-time captioning equipment from Cheetah, which is headquartered there, and will be broadcasting these captioned city council and school board meetings over the local cable channel.
This is becoming an increasingly affordable option for those in charge of public meetings of various types as well as for the reporters who offer such services. Regardless of whether the steno captioner works at the site of the meeting, as is true for the Fremont meetings, or from a remote location, such as his or her home, the only equipment needed other than the caption encoder is a 386 or 486 computer, a stenotype machine, the captioning software, and possibly a modem. Prices for caption encoders now range from $1,895 for a plug-in card up to $5,995 for a "Smart Encoder."
What´s behind the current upsurge in closed captioning? General public awareness certainly plays its part, as does active marketing of captioning equipment and services over the last year. Much of the growth, however, can be attributed directly to two national bills that were signed into law in 1990: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Television Decoder Circuitry Act (TDCA).
The ADA clearly mandates captioning of all government-funded public service announcements, but implies much more. There has not yet been a definitive legal opinion concerning whether public meetings of a government agency must be captioned, but many people read it that way.
Network television programmers and local news broadcasters were the first to begin captioning their programming. Next to fall in line will be local governments, such as cities, school districts, and counties. Many of these local agencies already broadcast their public meetings on local cable channels and may be captioning those programs in the future.
The TDCA mandates that all television sets 13" or larger manufactured for sale in the United States after July of this year must have caption decoders built in. No longer will captioning only be useful to the relatively small number of people who have decoder boxes-it will be in about 20 million new televisions per year!
Why realtime closed captioning in Fremont? It is home to the California School for the Deaf and thousands of residents with severe hearing loss. Realtime captioning allows those citizens to be active in the decision-making process of local government-something tape-delay captioning cannot do. Sign language interpreting and realtime captioning of important public are the only ways to fulfill the spirit of the ADA in affording a hearing-impaired person "equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, a service..."
The people who really made it happen in Fremont, though, were the deaf people. It all began with a letter-writing campaign, and culminated with a live-captioning demonstration for the city council. Deaf people from the community showed up to demonstrate their support.
The equipment and software were purchased for around $15,000. But the unique part is the funding of the ongoing steno captioning services needed every week. The City of Fremont, working on behalf of the school district and with the local cable company, negotiated a monthly charge of seven cents on each cable bill in order to fund these services. For $0.07 per subscriber per month, people with hearing problems can not only tune in to, but also participate in, Fremont´s city council and school board meetings. This budget is based on paying a steno captioner a flat rate of $100 per hour.
In Fremont, the steno captioner sits in the council chambers in order to get a good view of what´s happening and to be able to see the cards that people must fill out before they speak. The captions are cablecast, as mentioned, but are also displayed on a large monitor next to the podium so that the speaker and nearby audience members can see them.
As of this writing, the bids have not yet been evaluated to determine who will be doing the captioning. Kathy Robson, a freelance reporter living in Fremont, is captioning on an hourly contract basis until the permanent captioners are chosen[Kathy Robson has now been Fremont´s captioner for three years-gdr]. This is her first ongoing captioning contract, although she has captioned such events as the Easter Seals Telethon and meetings of the local chapter of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People.
Realtime captioning provided in compliance with the ADA will dramatically increase the demand for court reporters in the ´90s. An easy way a reporter can be prepared to respond to this new demand is to gain experience in the realtime captioning field and contact local agencies to be on future bid lists for steno services. For the former, contact NCRA about its Realtime Reporter Certification program; for the latter, simply send a letter to the purchasing agent of the agency, outlining your services, the benefits to the organization, and where to send request for proposals in the future. Follow up with a phone call. It´s quick and easy and could translate into more business for you.
Working with deaf organizations, however, is what really makes things happen. Elected officials are much more receptive to a request for captioning from a deaf citizen than from a potential steno captioner, so get out and work with these groups in your community.
If you want more information on captioning municipal government and the Americans with Disabilities Act, contact the authors of this article. Cheetah Systems is also maintaining a referral list to help cities and counties find steno captioners. If you´re interested, contact Gary Robson and he´ll put your name on the list.
Note: Captioning in Hillsborough County
As mentioned in this article, Fremont, California, is the first city in the United States to provide realtime captioning for all city council and school board meetings. There is, however, a county government that has been up and running with realtime captions for public meetings for somewhat longer-with a decidedly different approach.
Frank Turano, of Hillsborough County, Florida, decided that if he was going to implement captioning he was going to do it full-bore. The City has hired several full-time court reporters and uses them in rotation for meetings. There are monitors spaced around the room that display open captions, and the meeting is cablecast with captions on the local Government Access Television station. The meetings are also taped, complete with time codes to synchronize the text in the computer to the video.
The court reporters edit the captions, providing a clean verbatim transcript, and place these on the videotape in place of the original captions. The meeting is then rebroadcast several days later with open captions, and the tape is placed in a research room.
A computer in the research room, running Cheetah software, has all of the transcripts on its hard disk. Any transcript can be called up and viewed, and the person using the room can select sections of the text and ask to see the corresponding video. The system asks the person to insert the appropriate tape, and plays that section using a computer-controlled videotape machine.