It is more important than ever for deaf people to have access to critical information and have the same opportunities as their hearing counterparts to enjoy films and TV shows like anyone else.

This is even more important when it comes to accessing a University curriculum.  In this article, we will talk through the two main ways for deaf people to access information: live captioning and British Sign Language (BSL).   And discuss

There is a lot of questions and discussion about is which is better, and could technology replace the role of interpreters in the future?

Let us look at each of the forms of communication and how they work:

Live Captions

In an age of fast and constantly changing television, keeping the viewers attention is more challenging than ever.  Fast paced dramas, news reports cutting from newsroom to reporters in the field and of course the exciting world of live sports with dialogue flying a mile a minute, it’s sometimes a wonder that anyone can keep up sometimes with everything that is being said.

Now imagine turning that dialogue into text in real time!   This is a tool which benefits £12 million people who are deaf or have a hearing loss in the UK.  This is relied upon for their news and entertainment and to keep them connected and informed about the world around them.

This is the role that highly skilled Live Captioners carry out on a daily basis.

Fast and accurate live captions can only be generated in two ways:

  1. Stenography
  2. Voice recognition

Professional typists average in excess of 80wpm, not even close to the 180-250wpm spoken on an average television show.  Computer generated captions are no match for the personal approach having a real person apply themselves to the spoken.

Stenographers use stenograph machines to capture dialogue.  These machines have simplified keyboards that include just 22 keys with no letters, shift keys or space bars.  The keys on the stenograph machine represent syllables.  Stenographers write words phonetically based on the sounds they hear, one syllable at a time and by pressing keys at the same time in different sequences they can create the words.  It is a little bit like playing chords on a piano and rubbing your head and tummy at the same time!

A Stenographer will create their own shortcuts for commonly used words and phrases, building their own library of terms, technical vocabulary and names.  You can imagine that captioning an event like the Olympics would require a catalogue of thousands of individual entries such as events, athletes’ names and sports terms and all must be entered manually.

It’s almost impossible to capture some dialogue verbatim due to the speed in which television can move most of the errors that do occur are due to technical concerns rather than human error but they are only human and even at 99% accuracy mistakes can happen.

The use of voice recognition is an entirely different approach to the process and the professionals that undertake this work are known as Respeakers.

They will listen to the audio and simply repeat what they hear into a highly sophisticated voice recognition software which is trained to a particular voice.  Due to this highly focused training errors will rarely happen using this technology but it’s not flawless and if the system doesn’t recognise a word or a Respeaker mixes up their words, it will usually go to the one it sounds like the most which is often incorrect.  The Respeakers will build their own dictionary and library of words which they may need ahead of time.

Sign Language Interpreters

British Sign Language (BSL) Interpreters enable communication between deaf and hearing people.  Accessing information this way is crucial for those people who use BSL as their first or preferred language.

What people do not realise is that BSL has been recognised as an official language.  It has its own grammar rules, syntax and stylistic distinctions and it can take an interpreter a minimum of seven years to become fully qualified.

They need to have excellent skills in English and sometimes other languages.

They must:

  • Be expert communicators
  • Really enjoy working with people
  • Apply their style to different ages and abilities
  • Be able to modify their behaviour to different situations and environments
  • Be respectful and have a high level of empathy and trust as they are often alongside deaf people during very personal and difficult times such as work disciplinaries or hospital appointments

They work whenever and wherever they are needed including doctors and hospital appointments, at work or interviews, law courts and police stations, school and further education, which is an area we specialise in here at terptree.

So, could technology replace the interpreter?

This answer is simply, No – and for many reasons.

It is important to understand that English as we understand it is not always the first language of deaf people, it is usually BSL.  For the deaf person who has only known BSL, spoken English would be deemed a second language.

English has a lot of idiosyncrasies that make it super hard to learn as a second language and with the added challenges that deaf students face throughout their school career – deaf adults are estimated to have an average reading age of around aged 9-10  (or year 4-5  at school)* – so captions aren’t always the most accessible form of communication.

Although captioning is highly accurate now, glitches can happen with any technology and this can deny people critical information, a challenge that has been very current during the Covid-19 pandemic and captions cannot convey the tone of voice, or any urgency where a professional sign language interpreter can do that in real time.

There is the added human element when using a BSL Interpreter.  They put much more emotion and therefore additional meaning and context to what is being said, through facial expressions and body movement.

In a presentation or meeting, having an interpreter present can make a deaf person feel more included in the discussion allowing for a two-way conversation through the interpreter.  It also empowers the deaf person to ask questions and express their opinions, which is not possible using captions.  If there is any confusion on the correct pronunciation of a word, this is mitigated by working with an interpreter, who can also convey the correct pronunciation to the deaf person.

We recommend both.  The deaf person can then access language through the Interpreter and then on any pre-recorded information – also has access to the captions.  This is offering true inclusion for all.

It is Important to provide the service that matches the needs of the deaf person – so don’t assume, ask them!