"It really opened my eyes to accessibility," says Maureen Gross, special project coordinator for the U.S. Catholic Conference. "It's more than ramps--there's a whole gamut of what people need, and it's not necessarily just for disabled people."

It was her first experience with real-time captioning for an event she helped plan last July at the University of California at Los Angeles, the National Catholic Celebration of Jubilee Justice, which drew 3,300 attendees and involved more than 40 separate organizations, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference (NCCB/USCC). Providing real-time captioning was a specific request of one of the participating organizations, and, Gross says, even though preparation time was short, the effort was judged a great success.

There isn't a meeting that wouldn't benefit from real-time captioning, Gross says, especially for the many people who don't consider themselves hearing disabled, yet struggle sometimes in large venues. Her initial experience was so positive that she has included real-time captioning in an event she's planning for July, Encuentro 2000, a three-day multicultural Christian program at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

See the Speech Very simply, real-time captioning is the instant translation of the spoken word into written text, just like closed captioning on television for the hearing impaired.

"The National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities says that 15 percent of the population has some trouble hearing," Gross explains, "and it could be that someone simply is unable to distinguish sounds in a large arena. I'm only 30 years old and sometimes I turn on the captioning on my TV to hear whispering."

At the Jubilee Justice event last year, the captioner was set up backstage with a video monitor and with the sound system channeled directly into her ear. The rest is up to the captioner, who then types the spoken words into a computer loaded with software to translate the typed material onto video monitors where the presentation is taking place. The translation appears three lines at a time on the screen.

It sounds effortless, but Gross says that her first experience was in some ways a study in how not to do it. "We were behind in our planning last year," she says, "and because we were dealing with so many organizations, we didn't have a lot of material to hand over to the captioner." A good event, Gross says, should have a script. For a captioning translator, anything planners can give in advance becomes important.

And Gross learned the hard way. At Jubilee Justice last year, many facilitators and speakers were bilingual. "These folks would break into other languages in their speech and all the captioner could type in for the video screen was 'speaking Spanish'," Gross says. Another gaffe came when the captioner had trouble understanding a speaker with a heavy accent. "It was hard to hear and distinguish and there were some typos. But the worst part was when people in the audience were giggling when they saw the typos on the video scree--and it happened when the speaker was describing a particularly emotional experience. It absolutely killed our captioner, but it wasn't her fault."

Gross can now offer two pieces of critical advice: "Definitely prepare the material early and be particularly aware of any technical language or foreign language. And have the captioner come in a day early."

Unexpected Benefits Aside from the obvious service to attendees, real-time captioning gives meeting planners their event captured entirely on disk, which can then be made into minutes of the meeting or even a word-for-word transcript. "What we're hoping to do this year," Gross says, "is capture all those images and encode the captioning into a video, if we decide to make a video from the event, then people with an encoder on their VCR can see the captioning."

There's no added cost for these extras, says Gross, who found the price tag for captioning her 1999 event reasonable at about $5,000, which included 23 hours of captioning, the services of a certified real-time writer, computer and software, a minimum of two days of technical support, travel, and meals.

For the NCCB/USCC, accessibility and human rights are core issues and anything that mitigates the stigma of being handicapped is important. Real-time captioning is also flexible in that video monitors can be placed anywhere in the venue--a small breakout room, a large ballroom, or in a staggered fashion throughout the venue. "You definitely become more aware of the needs of handicapped people," Gross says, "and with this you don't have to put all the disabled people in one area. People in wheelchairs, for instance, don't come as a group, they are often with other able-bodied people. You can easily pull out a few staggered rows of seat and place small video monitors there."

It's a coincidence that her next real-time captioning event is in Los Angeles again this year, and Gross says she'd like to work with the same company. For meeting planners looking for real-time captioners, she suggests searching the Internet, or checking out a city's resource guide or the Yellow Pages under the heading "transcription."

Gross, who works in the Migration and Refugee Service department of the U.S. Catholic Conference, plans many one-time events for her organization, and, although each is different, the themes generally revolve around social justice. "It's a very positive thing, especially as populations get older and accessibility comes more into play for many of our attendees," Gross says. "And for us, real-time captioning is a natural."