The Quiet Musings

Attending conferences with a text interpreter

- June 20th, 2018 -

I started attending conferences, workshops, and meetups around 2012 or so. I have been deaf since late 2007. But it wasn’t until three years later that I found out there existed such a thing as a text interpreter. It took so long because doctors refer patients who lost their hearing to get an CI implant. They don’t supply folders and information on living as a deaf person. They just want to “fix” the problem. But that is a story for another time.

With a text interpreter, a new world opened up for me with many possibilities. And even more when I found out that some of the interpreters can also transcribe English. Some of them transcribe English to English, others English to Dutch. This meant I could also attend talks, meetups, and workshops that are in English.

What is a text interpreter and what do they do exactly?

A text interpreter types everything being said for me on a laptop or tablet. For this, they use a special keyboard that makes it able for them to type more quickly than with a regular keyboard. To become a text interpreter you have to get a degree and many hours of training. Plus they need to learn sign language. It’s not an easy job.

The text is not error-less nor an exact wording of what is being said. It’s not ‘smooth’ like the subtitles on Netflix. Because real life is not scripted into short sentences. People talk fast, low voice, several talking at once, etc. There is also the matter of attending a technical talk, say about SVG, Javascript or even CSS. A text interpreter has zero knowledge on the subject and has to make sure I get a comprehensive translation of what is being said.

A lot of speakers at events talk really fast. They pack a lot of information in one talk that needs to be given in 50 minutes. Hearing people have told me it keeps the talk interesting and upbeat. For me, it becomes very difficult to get everything. A text interpreter can’t keep up with all the information. On a normal tempo, I already get the text with a couple of seconds delay. When someone is talking very fast, it gets even more delayed and incomplete.

Right now, it is better than nothing. At Fronteers conference they supply English subtitles for their conferences which is awesome. These are done by a team of interpreters who also have experience transcribing technical talks. This is great for me and other deaf or hard of hearing people. Also for people who are not fluent in English. They can use the subtitles to take in the information at their own pace. I still take a text interpreter with me. Because if there is a connection error to the subtitles screen I miss everything while they work on restoring the connection. At such time my interpreter takes over so I don’t miss everything.

My text interpreter also translates for me during breaks and lunch. When I can’t lipread someone she’ll repeat it to me and use supporting Dutch sign language so I can follow along. She might even type it on the phone if it is too complicated. You could also just use your phone when talking to me, it’s just like sending a WhatsApp, only I’m standing right there! 🙂

‘What is that noise?’

During events, workshops, and meetups I always sit in front. My text interpreter can hear it best from the front and have a clear view of the slides. They also need the room to sit comfortably with the keyboard. As for me, I read body language to compensate for not hearing the tone. I’m tiny, sitting in the back or even middle makes it almost impossible for me to see the speaker or have a clear view of the slides.

Text being transcribed for me during a conference

Obviously, every time I get stares, looks and some people even ask what it’s all about. Which is normal human behavior. We always answer and explain what, why and how. Unfortunately, there have been complaints about the keyboard noise. I have no idea how loud it is. I do know most people are not bothered by it. I have no idea if the people complaining (sometimes in not a very nice way) know that there is a text interpreter in the room. Which inspired me to write this blog to bring awareness to the existence of deaf people or hard of hearing people attending conferences, meetups, and workshops with a text interpreter or a sign language interpreter.

the more accessible events are for everyone, the more knowledge we all gain

I have been informed that some people find sign language interpreters distracting. They have to stand in front to sign to the deaf person. Even tho I don’t use a sign language interpreter, I have been to events with them and have not found it distracting at all. I’m fully aware that they are a necessity for deaf and hard of hearing to participate equally.

It would be great if in the future all events provide text and sign language transcribers, and wheelchair accessible locations by default. I know it costs money, hopefully, companies will be more willing to sponsors these things. After all, the more accessible events are for everyone, the more knowledge we all gain to apply to our work and daily life. A win-win situation for everyone.