For my PhD research, I struggled for months trying to think of ways to avoid a fundamental barrier: I am deaf and I was not doing deaf-related research, as many deaf researchers are. Even worse, I was not doing research with computer models, fruit flies, rats, chemicals in test tubes, machines, or structures. I was doing ergonomic research that needed to examine human reasoning, knowledge, and problem solving. I tried to think of many other ways to look at problems but I kept returning to the same types of questions that interested me. There was no way around it. I needed to interview people—hearing, non-signing people—and I needed to use naturalistic, or qualitative, methods. I sign and I normally prefer to use that method for access to ordinary meetings. It is 100 times more reliable than lipreading, and results in 1/100 of the fatigue. However, this type of research requires accurate and complete notes, and sign language reception monopolizes vision. Using sign language interpreters in my interviews would have enabled me to understand the interview concurrently but not to take reliable and thorough notes. The chosen alternative was to use a real-time reporter.
In real-time reporting (sometimes called CART, for computer-assisted real-time translation), a specially-trained and prepared reporter transcribes the interview as it is conducted, using a stenotype machine. The proceedings are recorded by entering a chord (key combination) for each syllable. Real-time reporters have a background in court stenography. Ordinarily, homonyms such as “to/two/too” would be keyed alike in the courtroom and deciphered from context in preparing the court transcript in a subsequent operation. Because these distinctions must be made in real time to make the transcript useful to the client, real-time reporters have supplemented court-reporting training with additional training and experience to key homonyms distinctly and eliminate these so-called ‘conflicts’. Computerized translation is performed from “steno-language” using a prepared English vocabulary, with the interview transcript displayed on a video monitor in real time. A delay of only seconds is typical with a skilled reporter, with an accuracy rate in excess of 95%. (‘Inaccuracies’ in this context are normally words for which the phonetic input fails to find a match in the English vocabulary, possibly because it is a technical term, or one of the syllables was mis-keyed. It is usually possible to decipher the intended words without great difficulty if the reporter has adequate skill.)
Normally, real-time transcription is used for the closed-captioning of live television events or for the display of transcription on a monitor or projection screen for a meeting or conference presentation, or similar function. In the present instance, there were concerns that the presence of the reporter would be intrusive, as well as space-consuming in the small interview location. The reporter could be set up in an adjacent lab, but this approach would require incurring travel expenses for several interview periods. Conserving travel expenses and paid idle time for the reporters would have imposed additional restrictions on possible times for interviews, when maximizing the number of interviewees dictated being as flexible as possible for their schedules.
The solution was found in telecommunications. While most real-time television captioning is performed in specially-equipped studios from network feeds and satellite transmission, telephone lines are increasingly used as captioning of local broadcasts becomes more common but local reporters are unavailable. By connecting the reporter’s remote site to the interview site through two telephone lines, personal computers with modems and software, and an enhanced microphone in the interview site, the reporter could be situated anywhere.