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

The National Catholic Celebration of Jubilee Justice was Gross' first experience with providing real-time captioning. The event, which she helped to plan, was held July 1999 at the University of California at Los Angeles and 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 would not benefit from real-time captioning, Gross says, especially for the many people who don't consider themselves hearing disabled, yet who sometimes struggle in large venues.

Her initial experience was so positive that she included real-time captioning in an event she planned for July, Encuentro 2000, a three-day multicultural Christian program at the Los Angeles Convention Center in southern California.

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 1999 Jubilee Justice event, the captioner was set up backstage with a video monitor and with the sound system channeled directly into her ear. The rest was up to the captioner, who typed the spoken words into a computer loaded with software to translate the typed material onto video monitors that were displaying the presentation. The translation appeared 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 that 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 provide in advance becomes important.

And Gross learned the hard way. At that year's Jubilee Justice, 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 gaff 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 screen; 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 allows meeting planners to have their event captured entirely on disk, which can then be made into minutes of the meeting or even a word-for-word transcript. For the 2000 meeting, she planned to "capture all those images and encode the captioning into a video; 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, use of 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 seats and place small video monitors there."

It's a coincidence that her next real-time captioning event was in Los Angeles again this past year. 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."