By Gary D. Robson

Unfortunately, there's often an antagonistic or competitive relationship between sign interpreters and reporters doing CART or captioning. Generally, this stems from a lack of understanding on both sides. The solution, as in so many other cases, is education.

Why Are We There?

This is the first question you and the interpreter need to ask yourselves. At a fundamental level, you both have the same purpose: to enhance communication. This is what can cause interpreters to view you as a threat.

In reality, though, you'll swiftly learn that the two of you are performing different functions.

Deaf people generally can be classified as either prelingually deaf (also called culturally deaf or "capital-D" Deaf) or postlingually deaf. Late-deafened adults fall into the second category.

Saying that someone is prelingually deaf means that their deafness occurred before they developed linguistic skills and awareness. For these people, sign language is usually their first language, and English their second language. They can easily follow a sign interpreter, because the interpreter is using their native tongue. Many could have trouble keeping up with the realtime written English you produce, and often won't even try.

One exception to this is when people know the wrong sign language. Yes, indeed, there isn't just one sign language. In fact, in the United States, there are two in common usage.

ASL (American Sign Language) isn't even based on English. It comes from a French sign language. It has a totally different vocabulary, grammar and word order. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most expressive and beautiful languages in existence today.

SEE (Signed Exact English or Signed Essential English) is a rendering of the English language in signed visual form. It uses English vocabulary, word order and grammar. Many culturally deaf people shun SEE because it is not an offshoot of deaf culture, but it is popular with people who already know English because it is easier to learn.

Postlingually deaf people, especially late-deafened adults, usually have English as their first language. Many don't know sign language at all. They depend on you, and the interpreter is little or no help to them.

Work Together

When someone is speaking, you and the interpreter can work independently of each other. When someone is signing, you depend on the interpreter to know what to write. Work closely with interpreters. Exchange cards. Offer to send referrals if the interpreters will do the same. Get to know them and they won't view you as a threat.

One of the best presentations I was ever involved in was an awards banquet with many deaf attendees and recipients. We set up two cameras; one focused on the person speaking and one on the interpreter. A simple video effects box was used to create a split image with the speaker on the right and the interpreter on the left. This image was fed to the captioning system, and then displayed on a big projection screen with captioning on the picture.

Deaf people could choose their own combination of reading the captions, watching the interpreter and lip-reading the person who was speaking. Many deaf groups can't afford an approach like that, but it is absolutely the height of accessibility for those who can.


I can't tell you how many times I've had people ask me why captioners and CART reporters cost more than interpreters. You'll be asked this question, too, so have an answer ready. Here are some of the points I always try to make:


  1. Interpreters require no equipment. They don't have to worry about paying for computers, CAT/captioning software, service agreements, steno machines, caption encoders, video projectors and so forth.
  2. A four-hour conference requires one captioner or CART reporter, but two interpreters. Generally they switch off every half-hour or so. Even though the interpreters cost less individually, the cost has to be doubled before comparing.
  3. Interpreters can't provide meeting transcripts.

That's all for this month. Good luck, and keep on realtiming!

About the Author:
Gary Robson is a Contributing Editor for the JCR. He has written several books, including Alternative Realtime Careers, which was published by NCRA Press in July 2000. He chaired the working group that developed the EIA-708-B standard mentioned in this article. More information about captioning law can be found on his Web site at