Oticon Alta

As 2006 Deadline Looms Broadcast Captioning Reaches Crisis Point

Federal law mandates that all new programming be closed captioned by January 2006

National association representing broadcast captioners says shortage of trained professionals will impact 100 million Americans who rely on captioning

Senate unanimously passes solution; House yet to act


Vienna, VA (September 12, 2005) - A critical shortage of qualified broadcast captioners will leave millions of Americans without access to vital information - despite the mandates of a decade-old law - if Congress does not act to provide the funding necessary for training. This according to many deaf and hard-of-hearing advocates and a new report released by the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA). To access the report, visit www.ncraonline.org/infonews/press/Fedlnitiative/whitepaper.pdf

Twenty-eight million individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing run the daily risk of missing critical information that could save their lives in a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, the report says. Another 70 million Americans are cut out of the daily information and entertainment routine that many of us take for granted. And, in a matter of months, many television stations in the country run the risk of operating out of compliance with the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act mandates that all new English-language programming be closed captioned by next January, and by 2010 all new Spanish-language programming likewise must be captioned. According to the report, The Captioning Crisis: A Case for Swift and Decisive Action researched by NCRA, a nonprofit membership organization for the realtime court reporting and captioning profession, without funds to properly train new captioners to enter the profession, there is no chance that the mandate set forth by Congress will be met. For deaf and hard-of-hearing people and others who rely on captioning for vital information, failing to rectify the situation literally could mean the difference between life and death.

Closed-Captioning: A Lifeline for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

During an emergency, such as a hurricane or snow storm, or even another terrorist attack, a majority of Americans turn to their television news for critical information. Information that may inform them about evacuation procedures or other vital details, said NCRA President Merilyn Marquardt-Sanchez. The deaf and hard-of-hearing community not only relies on the visual images of the newscast but, more importantly, the captioning serves as a lifeline to critical information that can save lives. The current shortage of trained captioners is severely jeopardizing that lifeline.

The Federal Communications Commission has certainly taken notice, having recently fined television stations in San Diego, Washington, DC, and Southwest Florida for failing to adhere to the agencys emergency broadcast captioning rules. The San Diego stations were fined for failing to provide timely emergency captions and graphics during the deadly wildfires that ravaged the state in 2003. In Washington, DC, stations were fined for failing to provide adequate captioning during a tornado watch in May 2004. And, earlier this month in Florida, two stations were fined for not doing enough to inform hearing-impaired viewers during Hurricane Charley. In all three cases, critical safety information was not delivered to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.

These three occurances are prime examples of the need for broadcast captioning during an emergency, said NCRA Executive Director and CEO Mark J. Golden. When the system breaks down or doesnt work properly, lives are at risk.

Captioning Shortage: The Need for Legislative Action

The 1996 Telecommunications Act established a timetable under which a set number of hours of video programming and all new programming must be provided with captions:

  • Between Jan. 1, 2000 and Dec. 31, 2001 - at least 25 percent;
  • Between Jan. 1, 2002 and Dec. 31, 2003 - at least 50 percent;
  • Between Jan. 1, 2004 and Dec. 31, 2005 - at least 75 percent; and
  • As of Jan. 2006 and thereafter, 100 percent of distributors new video programming must be provided with captions.

According to the report, however, Implementing the act and the solution represented by closed captioning and CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) face a serious problem. Captioning and CART services are provided by professionals trained in state-of-the-art techniques of realtime and stenographic court reporting. Currently there is a severe shortage of reporters - a shortage compounded by the fact that there are too few training programs to meet the demand for additional reporters and little awareness of reporting as a career option.

There are only about 400 reporters doing captioning today, said Marquardt-Sanchez. Unless Congress acts now to provide the necessary funding to train new captioners and develop the necessary programs to conduct that training, there will not be enough qualified captioners to handle the existing workload, let alone meet the demands set by the law.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that opportunities in captioning and realtime reporting are expected to grow by a minimum of 10-20 percent during the next decade. Yet, despite these prospects, diminishing numbers of people entered the field during the past ten years, creating the shortage. And, due to policy neglect, equipping classrooms, attracting students to the field, and dealing with an aging technological infrastructure, there are not nearly enough facilities or programs to adequately train captioners. Good-paying jobs are going unfilled because there are not enough workers to take them, the report notes, adding that a trained captioner can earn an average annual income that exceeds $70,000. In addition, the skills are portable. A person trained in a two-year captioning program can, with relative ease, learn to provide other realtime services, the need for which are expected to continue growing.

According to Captioning in Crisis, The good news is that small amounts of startup funding can create successful programs that graduate students into productive, lifelong careers. The bad news is that funding has only been available through stopgap or emergency allocations.

The Training for Realtime Writers Act has been introduced in Congress to help avert this looming crisis as the deadline approaches. The Senate has passed unanimously S. 268, which would appropriate $80 million dollars over four years - just 72 cents per year for each deaf and hard-of-hearing individual who uses captioning. However, the House has yet to act. The resources would be allocated to training court reporters and broadcast captioners and funding programs and infrastructure requirements needed for colleges to prepare a qualified workforce. (A similar version of the Senate bill also was passed unanimously last year during the 108th Congress while the House version had 132 bipartisan co-sponsors.)

For the past few years, the profession has had to do with emergency stopgap funding that has helped - but has not been nearly enough, said Golden. Its imperative that Congress act now to pass this legislation - which it has described in the past as an immediate and pragmatic solution - and provide the necessary funding for the training and equipment required to bring more workers into the profession. This would alleviate the shortage and ensure that all Americans, especially the deaf and hard of hearing, have access to emergency information and news and entertainment programming.

According to NCRAs report, Without the reporters needed to perform the captioning work, and without the funds needed to provide the programs required to train them, the legislative dictate exists as an unfunded, unattainable federal mandate.

Due to the influx of new stations and networks, the number of total programming hours that must be captioned continues to increase while the number of captioners has remained constant, said Marquardt-Sanchez. The need is real. The crisis is looming. For the benefit of all Americans, the House needs to act now.

National Court Reporters Association

NCRA is a 26,000-member nonprofit organization representing the judicial reporting and captioning professions. Members include official court reporters, deposition reporters, broadcast captioners, providers of realtime communication access services for deaf and hard-of-hearing people and others who capture and convert the spoken word into information bases and readable formats. Additional information is available by calling 800-272-6272 (TTY 703-556-6289) or visiting their Web site at www.NCRAonline.org

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