Do You Hear What I Read? A Look at Captioning from the Typist’s Chair

By Debra L. Butterfield / Guest Blogger

Debra Butterfield (right) with fellow captionist Vicki Whitlock

Poor woman, I thought as I entered the conference auditorium that evening. Up there for all to watch as she performs her job. My thoughts weren’t for the speaker, but for the woman providing live captioning for the attendees with hearing loss. As part of the conference staff, I could have volunteered for the task, but didn’t. The best typing skills in the world would be of little use if my own hearing issues kept me from hearing what was said.

Soon the emcee announced it was time to start, and the room grew quiet. As the keynote speaker delivered her message, my eyes flitted from her to the screen to the typist and back again. She clearly was not accustomed to live captioning. Like translating into a foreign language, the speaker must allow time for the translator to translate, or in this case, for the captionist to type. The rapid fire delivery of her words far outpaced anyone’s keyboarding ability, and forced the typist to paraphrase or miss large portions of the dialogue all together.

Uncomfortable for her struggle, I squirmed in my seat. During the break, I made my way up front. “Your fingers are flying over that keyboard.”

“Yeah, it’s really difficult to keep up.” She offered a smile, but I sensed her frustration.

The speaker wasn’t intentionally making it hard, she simply didn’t realize the requirements of the task. Her diction was excellent, and the sound system volume more than adequate to overcome my hearing issues. Confident I could handle the task, I said, “Is anyone else helping you? If not, how about we tag team?”

She agreed.

When my turn came, I observed the audience while I typed. Mostly, I watched Shanna Groves, the hard of hearing emcee of the conference. Every time the speaker turned away from Shanna, Shanna’s head would turn to the screen. She couldn’t read the speaker’s lips if she couldn’t see them. Shanna relied on those words appearing on the screen—the words I was attempting to capture. How much of the message was she missing because I couldn’t keep up with the speaker?

The magnitude of the captioning and its accuracy seized me.

Many people in our society—me included!—are clueless about the challenges those with an impairment face in living functional, productive lives. It may be cliché to say “walk a mile in my shoes,” but doing so creates understanding, compassion, and a desire to make life better for those who are disabled.

Now, I understand the battle. Not completely, mind you, but more deeply than before.

The captioning screen for all eyes to see


As a Christian speaker and writer Debra L. Butterfield brings a message of hope and encouragement to those who are hurting. She has overcome abuse, adultery, divorce, and the sexual abuse of her daughter. Debra is a Nebraska native who has lived in nine states and four years in Germany. These life experinces have made her an everyday approachable woman candid about her own mistakes with messages that are refreshing and practical. She is passionate about helping others conquer life’s struggles to live victoriously. She created Glory and Strength, a webzine filled with stories of hope and healing. Read more about her writing at

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7 thoughts on “Do You Hear What I Read? A Look at Captioning from the Typist’s Chair

  1. If I may venture some hopefully constructive feedback? When you mention “captioning,” so that the public understands, I think it’s important to differentiate between typing on a computer keyboard and typing on a shorthand machine. There is a world of difference. I am a CART captioner, and stenotype on my shorthand machine makes it possible to keep up with human speech at well over 200 words per minute. I take my hat off to Debra, because she attempted the impossible. It’s very discouraging and exhausting when it’s just too fast. (Sometimes it’s even too fast for me with my fancy shorthand machine!) Humans speak at over 170 words per minute, and the very best typist on a computer keyboard can’t sustain more than 80 to 100 words per minute for any length of time.

  2. Great article! New perspectives on speaking for those of us who haven’t had the hearing issue personally. I, for one, will be more aware of speaking carefully and deliberately.

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