By Janice T. Young

Picture this scenario: You (a classroom CART provider) are partway through Introductory Astronomy with your hearing-impaired student, who sits at your side avidly reading your computer output. All is going well. You have carefully prepared your course vocabulary and done a practice take or two that morning to warm up before class, and it's paying off. The instructor's words are rolling beautifully across the screen. Just as you're lulled into that deadly sense of security about the world in general and your writing abilities in particular, the name Ptolemy comes up, out of the blue, and that sinking feeling hits you: It's not in my dictionary. You also know that your phonetic dictionary (which helps make your untrans look more readable) is not going to be much help; in this case, since it's a person's name, there's really no usable synonym. What to do?

Welcome to the art of fingerspelling!

Pick an Alphabet

To those of you for whom this is a new concept, fingerspelling involves writing a word one letter at a time, using some sort of flagged alphabet on your steno writer instead of writing a word with phonetic outlines or arbitraries. Sound cumbersome? It certainly can be, and often is. The name Ptolemy is seven separate strokes if you fingerspell it (imagine spelling out a word like onomatopoeia). That's the bad news. The good news is that it is a skill that, like so many others, can be practiced and even perfected, and it can become a valuable tool in your realtime career. While fingerspelling is not a substitute for a solid, conflict-free theory and a good working set of prefixes, suffixes and word roots, it is an excellent way to handle the occasional oddball word or name that you will inevitably hear on the job.

There are a couple ways to use a flagged alphabet to translate a fingerspelled word. One way is to let your software do some of the work for you. In some translation programs, you can define your flagged alphabet to be recognized by the computer as letters that will automatically "stitch" together as you write them. Another option is to define your own alphabet that consists of letters that, depending on how you write them, will either stand alone or attach themselves to the previous letter. Here is a sample of outlines that I have found useful:

T-FPL ~T (delete space preceding the T)
T-RBG ~t
T-PLTD T. (a period after the letter)

This alphabet enables me to spell in all caps, all lowercase, initial cap with the remainder of the word in lowercase and mixed case (e.g., NaCl, the abbreviation for sodium chloride). If you choose to let your software do the stitching for you, then you really only need two alphabets: one for uppercase and one for lowercase. And if your work calls for translation in uppercase letters only, then one will suffice.

Once you've determined how you will write your fingerspelling alphabet, it's time to practice it. Just as you needed to drill yourself on shorthand speed, you probably will also need to do the same with your fingerspelling skills. Practice at home with random words picked out of the dictionary; experiment with it on the job if you're able to. Start with small words and work up to longer ones. Work to achieve a steady rhythm as you spell, rather than frantic, jerky bursts. You'll be surprised how quickly that word can come out, if you don't panic! Try to think of fingerspelling as just another bunch of outlines and jump right in.

Some Tips

Here are a few tips that might help the process:

  1. Once you've fingerspelled a word or name, if it comes up again, or repeatedly, consider spelling only the first few letters (you can add an ending period if you choose) or even just using the first letter with a period. For example, Cyclops could be Cyc. if it comes up again in a short time; King Farouk might reappear as King F. Remember, communication access is your primary objective, and if you can pop in enough letters to convey a meaningful abbreviation, your aim is accomplished.

  2. A variation on Tip No. 1: If you really have no time to fingerspell, get down the initial letter with period, keep going and as soon as possible include the full name or term in an explanatory parenthetical. For example, "Be sure to thoroughly sterilize the E. flask before using (Erlenmeyer)." It's better than not getting it at all.

  3. Take advantage of any opportunity to write an outline that will translate as part of a word and fingerspell the rest. For example, I recently encountered the word precession in a physics class, which, not being in my dictionary, would have translated as "pre + session" - not quite right. With my prefix pre and suffix ion, however, I only needed to fingerspell cess to get the correct word. How about pepperoni? If you've got pepper in your dictionary, just tack on a spelled oni at the end. Finale? That's final with an extra e. If you think creatively, you often can make it easier on yourself.

  4. Finally, don't agonize over perfection in fingerspelling. The shorter the word, the more accurate you're apt to be; and the longer the word, the more likely your consumer will be able to read through your mistakes. Take a word like seraglio. Which is easier to figure out: a misspelled seralglio or the mistranslation certify ago Leo? Again, never forget your ultimate goal of communication access. Do your best, but the key to fingerspelling is to get on with it and keep moving. Don't lose the next 15 words just because you're concentrating so hard on the flawless spelling of one!

No question about it: Your most important CART skills are shorthand speed, a good realtime-compatible theory, a well-stocked personal dictionary and proficiency in English grammar and vocabulary, especially pertaining to the type of reporting you are likely to be exposed to. Yet, no matter how strong you are in these areas, the unexpected, the obscure, the made-up-on-the-spot word is likely to come your way at any time. Fingerspelling is the tool that can help get those words on the screen - and provide more complete access as a result. Give it a try!

About the Author:

Janis T. Young, RMR, CRR, is from Santa Fe, N.M. This article is reprinted with permission from the CARTWheel Hub.