Accommodation: A New Form of Communication

By Randi C. Friedman, RPR, CRR, CRC, Montclair, N.J.

"Practice of a profession is a public trust, earned through education, experience, examination, and commitment on the part of the practitioner to public service." 1


Once upon a time, a deaf person who was a lip-reader would not even consider going to a public event because they would miss so much. Since they don't speak American Sign Language, an ASL interpreter did not help this population of deaf people. Now one of the most exciting things happening in our culture today is provision of access in public settings to people who are deaf and hard of hearing via CART technology, also known as open or live captioning. The possibilities for creating access are endless. There are also many challenges. What are the possibilities and some of the challenges, and what is our role in earning the public's trust?

The deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers that I work with are mostly highly intelligent people who are excellent lip-readers and use speech, not American Sign Language, as their mode of communication. At times, they turn to me to be a conduit of communication.

As the link between speaker and listener, my job carries with it surprising responsibilities and tasks. Most public places were built without an understanding of how to include people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Like most forms of discrimination, excluding others is hurtful to the individual and to the society she or he lives in.

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation, our society has sought and discovered ways to provide equal access to all. Access is also known as "accommodation," which may be a patronizing use of the word. We are not doing consumers of CART services a favor, merely providing what they are entitled to under the law.

My CART experience

Over the years I have been working as a CART captioner, I have come to the conclusion that access or accommodation is a new form of communication. As with anything new, such as a new relationship, a new house, DVD player, or kitten, there is always a learning curve. This particular learning curve influences our society, the Western world and, over time, the entire world, because the technology makes our world bigger and more inclusive. The larger the mass of people involved in learning a new skill, the slower the process tends to be.

Learning ourselves how to successfully communicate with people with hearing challenges and teaching others how it works is an opportunity for us to grow as individuals and our society to grow strong in its democratic foundation that all people are created equal and deserve fair treatment. At the outset, I have found most presenters are gung ho about including a previously excluded segment of the population. Not surprisingly, once they realize that access requires some adjustment on their part, resistance can set in.

All CART captioners I have spoken to have faced the challenge of getting the materials they need to provide quality access. Like a surgeon or master carpenter, our skills are useless without tools. Our tools? The words that will be spoken. We have received various responses, which range from rapt attention and complete compliance to "I am a busy person" to "They (the deaf person) don't need that information" or "I won't be talking much about that" or, worst of all, "I'll give it to you afterwards." "Will I be saying any proper names? No." And then many multisyllabic proper names or unusual terminology is used over and over.

What can the CART captioner do to execute his or her professional responsibilities and serve the public while navigating through the world of egos, including their own? How can their ethics positively impact the challenge of bringing a relatively new technology into public settings?

My ethics require me to honestly communicate my needs for quality CART provision and to continue to persist in the face of resistance and to overcome my fear of other people's misunderstanding or discomfort. Then I can do my job in a professional manner and provide equal access. My professional responsibilities include my duty to discern to the best of my ability why my message is not getting across or I am not receiving what I need to provide quality service.

Most people care and are willing to cooperate but don't know how or what to do. I am asking them to engage in a completely new form of communication. They are beginners or foreigners to access provision, and there is a learning curve. They have busy lives too, and I am asking them to do something extra. I can try to be patient while being persistent. Language, my principal vehicle of expression, has its limitations. The tone, cadence, number, and quality of my requests can affect another's response.

As the CART captioner seeks to do her job with the same excellence she approaches all her tasks in life, the natural discomfort or resistance that arises in others when being asked to approach something differently for someone else's benefit can influence her to "not want to make waves" and stop communicating. This would leave our consumers in the same place they always have been: On the outside of public interactions.

My Goal in providing CART: Equal access

The CART captioner's number one task is communication of information. I direct my energies to my professional goal: Providing equal access to the consumer who is deaf or hard of hearing to the best of my ability. I walk a thin line as I broach the subject, not wanting to marginalize my consumers further by alienating the hearing person who is new at this. It is easier said than done. Equal access is not on the minds of people who aren't hearing-impaired.

I have discovered my own challenges and gaps around communication and have become willing to work on them because equal access requires teamwork. My challenges include my impatience and my expectation that "intelligent people should know/understand this." Or my erroneous assumption that everyone wants to help another person receive equal access, even though most people aren't even thinking about this before they meet me. Or my expectation that people should give me what I want when I want it.

In order for me to provide access to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in any setting — one-on-one on a college campus, or for a board member who is deaf or hard of hearing, for an audience at an art lecture or panel discussion or symposium — I need the help of presenters, professors, panel members. Essentially, I need the help of all of the speakers, and/or some of their staff. Gone are the days of "I'll get it later," which worked in litigation settings when I was a court reporter, where I could get spellings, keywords, and phrases at each recess or after the day was done. Here, later is too late.

How I prepare for a CART job

"The professional carries out [that] trust in accord with ethical standards developed through the years . . . of the best professional traditions . . . " 2

The key to a quality realtime output is input of key words, names, and terminology. I begin the "word hunt" early by approaching either the professors directly or the coordinator of an event four to six weeks before the event. A site visit is worth a thousand telephone calls; a telephone call is worth a thousand emails; and an email is a great introduction. So I start with an email. For large events, it often takes several weeks to find the right person who can give me what I need and then to overcome their need to tell me what they think I need or don't need. They mean well, but many have never met a deaf or hard-of-hearing person and have no idea what open-captioning or CART is and are thrown off balance by my entrance into their world.

"The professional carries out [that] trust in accord with ethical standards developed through the years ... of the best professional traditions ...." 3

My introductory email is about two lines, which is intended to set up a telephone conversation at a convenient time for them, which I say will take about 10 minutes. Sometimes it takes only four minutes if the person easily understands what I do and need. When the listener is interested and curious and they have questions about what else they can do to participate in this fascinating, rewarding process, the conversation can be half an hour.

In the more difficult situations, to begin with, I must not laugh out loud or express exasperation when I say I am working with people who are deaf and a PhD, for example, asks me if they read Braille. The lumping together of deaf and hard of hearing with people who are blind or with people who have learning challenges is all too common and more of a tragedy than a comedy. I have to be patient when I say, "They are deaf, not blind," and wait for the person's embarrassment to pass, but not let it stop me from getting what I need. Caring about my own humanity and theirs is so crucial in creating and completing the communication link as I help them help me. There will be discomfort and embarrassment as we move across the learning curve together. I have made plenty of mistakes, some more than once, and I suspect more are in my future. My mistakes are my personal learning tools. Embarrassing moments pass.

"As you wander through your life, sister, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole.4

It would be a dream come true if I could simply say, "I need your PowerPoint slides, if any, and lecture notes or, better yet, your speech, in advance, and any proper names you might reference," and the speaker would promptly respond, "Sure, you got it," and deliver on time, which is a week before the event, so we can familiarize ourselves with the material, reading through it two or three times, inputting key words, speeches, quotes, resolutions, poems, and going to the internet for further research that might occur to us as we review the material. Alas, the reality sometimes differs from the dream.

Common preparation challenges

Here are some of the resistant types of presenters I have encountered that have challenged my communication skills and patience.

  1. Last-minute Joe or Jane.

    This person writes her speech on the plane on the way to the event or in the wee hours of the morning the night before. How can they possibly get it to me? They usually start with "I don't know what I am going to say yet." I say, "Can you give me a clue, a summary? Do you think you will be using any proper names? That will help a lot." I ask if there is any place on the internet that might help my understanding of the topic.

    Then I check the internet to see if they have written any articles or books on the subject, and I read or scan them. Often they talk about some of the same ideas they addressed in the past. If they are lecturing at an institution before an audience, I visit the institution to see if they have any literature or materials on the subject the speaker will discuss. The administrator of the event or her or his assistant can be extremely helpful in loaning me books or photocopying articles and telling me who the emcee is and how I can locate her or him to get their introductory remarks. I have received so much useful information from the on-site visit that I would never have gotten otherwise.

    I also ask the last-minute prep speaker for their CV (curriculum vitae, or resume) and if they can come about half an hour early and bring me a copy of their speech or cue me on the keywords. Sometimes in that half-hour I can input the entire speech.

  2. "I'm a busy, important person."

    This is usually a breathless, harried individual who barely has time to listen to my phone call and has not replied to my email. They are usually very efficient people and have what I need, but it's like hide-and-seek: I have to find them when they have a minute to listen. I try to arrange a pickup of the materials at their convenience and offer to photocopy them if they don't have time. Once they realize I respect their busy schedule, they somehow find time to ask their assistant to get me the materials I need and have a packet ready by the time I arrive.

  3. "I'm overwhelmed."

    Short of providing this person a getaway weekend to the Bahamas, I back off a little. I usually apologize for giving them "one more thing to do" at the beginning of a busy semester or a few weeks before an event. I ask if there is a way I can make it easier for them to provide me with the information I need. "Can I call you in a week to see where you stand?" I ask. The four- to six-week lead time gives them a chance to find time for me in their schedule, and I can make several reminder or confirmation phone calls.

  4. Pass the buck, Charlie or Charlene.

    Sometimes I have felt like I was being given the runaround by certain people who would tell me to call another person, who then told me to call another person. For one event, I was directed to about four or five different people. As I continued to dialogue with them in turn and communicated with the deaf consumer, an honoree at the event who knew most of them and who helped me, I was able to discern that they ALL were involved in making the huge fundraiser gala happen and I needed to keep in touch with each to get the various speeches, logistics, and site checks in order. Again, the beauty of a telephone call (when possible) makes communication immediate, and we can have an exchange of ideas instead of two monologues. Once I understood who did what, we were able to follow up with emails.

  5. "They don't need that information (the deaf person)."

    This is among the hardest forms of resistance to meet. It is based on the assumption that the person who has never worked with a CART captioner or consumer of our services will unilaterally decide what the consumer needs or is entitled to receive. They think they are helping, so I need to diplomatically mention that the Americans with Disabilities Act has ruled that people who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to equal access; that I am obliged to give them access to what everyone else hears and that is accomplished if I receive access to the speaker's notes or keywords. If they understand, they are helpful. If I can't penetrate their thinking about what needs to be done, I have to let it go and hope I have gotten some information across. Maybe the next CART captioner can make more headway.

  6. "I'll give it to you afterwards."

    I tell them with a smile, "Oops, later is too late. Access means these consumers are entitled to the same access as the hearing audience at the same time. It is like the news reporter saying, 'We are on the scene live, and here is what's happening' then the deaf person's screen goes blank, but everyone else's screen is fine, which is very frustrating and leaves the consumer who is deaf or hard of hearing out of the communication loop."

  7. "It's proprietary."

    Like most forms of resistance, there is some fear or ignorance involved. Before they get to the point of wanting to deny me access to copyrighted material, I say, "I realize some of your work may be proprietary. I am happy to sign a confidentiality agreement if you'd like. It is strictly for my use to extract the key words to provide realtime access. The consumer will never see it. In fact, I would be happy to review it at your office or in your presence, if you'd prefer."

  8. "I think the video is closed-captioned."

    "Think" being the operative and dangerous word. I have made the mistake of assuming that is true and got caught in the tight spot of trying to live-caption a video where the voices are usually off-screen. I have unconsciously learned to lip-read to augment my captioning skills, which include excellent hearing, so unless the video has very clear speakers and there is not a lot of action or background music to describe at the same time I am writing the dialogue, it is almost impossible to open-caption a prerecorded video live, and so equal access is being compromised. If she or he is in possession of the video, I ask the speaker to look on the box for the "CC" symbol showing it is closed-captioned. If it does not have the symbol and I can't get a copy easily on my own, I ask to borrow theirs and I script the video beforehand and give the consumer the script or scroll through it if it is before a live audience. If there is a resident audiovisual staff, I contact them and find the person who can install the captioning decoder box before the event or class and who knows how to turn on the captions the day of the event. One nice person usually leads to another. I may have to start with the facilities manager, and they will put me in touch with their staff.

Attitude and professionalism

Sometimes, no matter what I do a person is too busy or just uncooperative for unknown reasons. What do I do? Like every pro, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, concentrate, and write to the best of my ability. Under these circumstances, I can communicate useful information to the consumer even if it is not perfect or verbatim. My consumers are my most important point of reference and my best advisors on what to do in most situations. I consult them before, during, and after the event if possible.

My ability to accomplish my part in providing equal access for people who are oral deaf and hard of hearing starts and ends with my attitude. If I am not being understood or feel ignored, I can pursue clearer communication. Have I been courteous? Have I given the speaker choices? Am I listening to them? Am I willing to flex myself according to their schedule? Is my perfectionism getting in the way? Am I unwilling to "let it go" after a few attempts and do my best on site? Am I showing respect for other people's personalities when I ask them to approach the unknown?

"We seek to shape the future through our activities in the present." 5

There are solutions waiting to be discovered. Our small contribution makes a difference. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

1. From the introduction to "A Public Trust — A Message to Licensed Professionals Practicing in New York State" from The State Education Department Office of the Professions, received when I passed my NYS CSR exam.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Anonymous
5. Ibid.