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A word-perfect career


Kelly Acuna was listening to the radio in her hometown of Norfolk, Neb., when she heard an ad describing the growing need for trained real-time reporters to work as court reporters and captioners.

“It just sort of fell into my lap,” said Acuna, who after two years is nearing the proficiency level that will allow her to graduate from the real-time reporting program at AIB College of Business in Des Moines. She hopes to begin working for a national closed captioning company this spring, a position that would likely pay $50,000 or more in her first year of full-time work.

For every television program that uses closed captioning, somewhere a skilled captioner is working, usually in real time, to convert the spoken words and sounds from the program into text that appears on the screen. An estimated 28 million deaf or hearing impaired Americans use closed captioning to access news or simply enjoy their favorite shows. Additionally, many colleges and school districts have instituted Communication Access Realtime Translation, or CART, programs that provide captioned translation to students in the classroom.

Acuna is among the first wave of students who are nearing graduation in AIB’s captioning program, which the college launched in the fall of 2002. The program on average takes 27 months to complete, though individual completion times vary based on students’ aptitudes and willingness to practice. While only about 60 percent who begin the captioning or court reporter programs will graduate, the placement rate for graduates is typically 100 percent.

By 2006, it’s estimated that an additional 3,000 real-time captioners will be needed across the country to meet the requirements of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which will require all television programming to be closed captioned for the deaf or hearing impaired. According to the National Court Reporters Association, the demand for captioners is creating a critical shortage of professionals within the industry.

“Captioning companies and broadcasters will need qualified reporters to caption tens of thousands of hours of live programming every week,” NCRA Executive Director Mark Golden said in a November release. “This is in addition to the tremendous need for full communication access that only CART providers can offer in school and other settings.”

For the past several years, Congress has approved funding designed to help fill the training gap. Last month, AIB officials were notified they had received a $500,000 federal appropriation for the college’s real-time reporting program, most of which will go toward retraining experienced court reporters to become captioners, said Joan Bindel, AIB’s vice president for enrollment.

At the same time, Congress is moving forward with a bill that would establish a competitive grants program that will allow AIB and other colleges to compete for funding to either expand or establish real-time reporting programs. Sen. Tom Harkin, who wrote the original legislation in 1992 requiring televisions to be equipped for closed captioning, co-authored the Training for Real-time Writers Act of 2004, which seeks a $20 million authorization in fiscal year 2005 to meet the demand for additional captioners. The measure, Senate Bill 480, passed the Senate on Nov. 19 and last week was being heard in the House.

Since 2000, Harkin, with Sen. Charles Grassley, has secured $2.2 million for AIB’s program, which is one of only 62 NCRA-approved programs in the country and the only one in Iowa. AIB used the funding to update its classrooms with more computers and to build a captioning lab, both of which will become increasingly filled with students. The college currently has 163 real-time reporting students enrolled, and 50 potential students have applied so far for the fall 2005 class.

“We’re definitely seeing a strong growth,” Bindel said.

The program has predominately attracted female students; all but a handful of AIB’s real-time reporting students are women. Bindel said the trend appears cyclical because 40 to 50 years ago, court reporting had shifted to a male-dominated profession, and has since swung back.

Graduating from the program is no small feat. AIB’s real-time reporting students must demonstrate they can “write” at a speed of 220 words per minute for five minutes, with at least 97 percent accuracy. Learning how to use the computerized stenotype machine, which translates coded abbreviations entered by the writer into sentences using a built-in “dictionary” of tens of thousands of words, has been compared to studying the piano and a foreign language simultaneously.

“It’s a very challenging program and if you want to succeed you have to put a lot of time into it,” Bindel said. And to be successful in capturing the essence of nearly any subject area that might appear on television, “you have to know a little about everything.”

In addition to practicing about four hours on their computerized stenotype machines each day during classes, real-time reporting students typically spend two hours or more of their own time working each day to improve their speed and accuracy.

“There is no magic formula,” said Deb Dubuc, AIB’s real-time curriculum coordinator, who worked as a court reporter before joining AIB as an instructor seven years ago. “It’s a lot of practice.”

Generally, students will know by the end of their first year of theory classes whether the career is for them, though some realize within the first couple of weeks that they either love it or hate it, Dubuc said.

Students must then decide at the end of the first year whether to pursue the captioning option or the court reporting program. It’s also possible for them to switch from one to the other. For instance, Amy Chase, a student who had been in the captioning program, decided recently to move to court reporting.

“I think I’m more of a people person,” said Chase, who is interning with a Des Moines court reporting firm and hopes to begin full-time work in the spring. “Doing depositions would enable me to be with people.”

Robyn Mengwasser, an AIB graduate and former court reporter who has worked as a captioner for the past 10 years, said she found the specialty a good way to work from home after she became a mother.

“Nobody would choose to work to midnight, but it’s what works for my family,” said Mengwasser, a Des Moines resident who captions live for national programming that includes CNN, Fox News Channel, The Weather Channel and C-SPAN. Her weekly schedule includes nights, holidays and weekends.

“I’ve got three boys, and I usually work late at night,” she said. “The house needs to be quiet for me to be able to concentrate.”

She also captions at Des Moines City Council meetings, and has captioned such events as Iowa State University graduations.

Mengwasser said she enjoys the variety of the work.

“Every day you learn something different,” she said. “On any given day I’m faced with a new expert on a topic and it’s pretty challenging. At some point, I think I’d prefer a schedule that’s less nights, holidays and weekends.”

For Karla Ray, who transitioned from court reporting to captioning two years ago, the ability to work from home has been the biggest benefit.

Ray, who had been a court reporter for the juvenile court for Polk County, attended a three-day “boot camp” for captioning in June 2002 held by Vitac, a major captioning company. After practicing and periodically sending in files she captioned of CNN broadcasts to Vitac, she was accepted for a full-time position. Her first assignments were to provide live streaming Web reports of quarterly corporate earnings meetings. She was then trained to caption for live cable broadcasts.

Ray said she normally captions about 22 hours of programming a week, on a schedule in which she can request the shows and times she wants.

“We don’t always get what we want, but they try to give us our top preferences,” said Ray, who tries to work an afternoon schedule while both of her children are at daycare. One of her more interesting assignments this past year was captioning portions of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.

Ray said she earns a little more than she did as a freelance court reporter, plus she gets company benefits.

Would she have trained directly in captioning if it had been an option when she was in school in the mid-1990s?

“Absolutely,” she said. “But the experience in court reporting was good.”


– Court reporters (including deposition reporters and captioners) earn an average of nearly $62,000 a year.

– There are an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 court, deposition and captioning

reporters in the U.S.

– Only about 27 percent of the court reporters in the U.S. actually work in court. Most of the rest are freelance reporters hired by attorneys to report depositions of potential trial witnesses.

– Captioning of live television shows is done by specially trained court reporters called stenocaptioners. The demand for jobs in broadcast captioning is expected to triple by 2006.

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