How to Become a Captioner for the Deaf

An Increasingly Lucrative Field

Office telephone
Become a Captioner. Image Source / Getty Images

Legislation stemming from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 making closed captioning on television mandatory has greatly increased the demand for broadcast captioning services. Perhaps you are interested in becoming a captioner, either offline or real-time (live). It is easier to become an offline captioner than a real-time captioner, but there is more money, and possibly more job security, in real-time captioning.

Offline Captioner

The offline captioner captions pre-recorded video programming such as movies and television programming. Software for offline captioning is readily available and that offline captioning does involve some skill, such as learning time codes and synchronizing them with the captions, using computers, and having good English skills.

Some captioning services will transcribe a script before captioning, meaning that they listen to the video program and prepare a script to work with for captioning purposes. It is usually less expensive to caption if there is a prepared script already. The ease of getting into the business has helped to keep the cost of offline captioning down. In addition to independent captioning services, many post-production houses also offer offline captioning services.

Real-time Captioning

Becoming a real-time captioner, sometimes called a broadcast captioner, stenocaptioner, or real-time captioner, involves intensive training and practice.

The real-time captioner may work independently as a contractor, or as an employee of a captioning service or television station. More court reporting schools and colleges, particularly community colleges, are offering broadcast captioning training to meet the increased demand. A skilled realtime captioner can earn as much as $120,000 annually (in 2003 dollars), with entry-level salaries hovering around $40,000 (in 2003 dollars).

A real-time captioner must have plenty of stamina and good English, be very accurate, type fast, and have stenographic skills because a stenographic shorthand is used with the live captioning equipment. Real-time captioners have often had to perform heroically, captioning online for hours without a break in emergencies and major news events.

This is a job that can be done remotely because it involves a link to the live broadcast feed, meaning telecommuting is possible. However, at-home broadcast captioners often have to buy their own computers, software, and captioning equipment. In addition, a real-time captioner must invest additional hours outside of the actual captioning, to preparing for a broadcast by making sure their equipment's dictionaries are up to date with the terms that they will be captioning.

If you want to become a real-time captioner, many colleges and court reporting schools offer training and degrees. The National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) even offers a Certified Broadcast Captioner certification, to increase the professionalism of this career path. In anticipation of the exploding demand, the federal government provided grants to several colleges -- reportedly 14 nationwide -- to increase the availability of broadcast captioning training programs and expand the supply of trained broadcast captioners.

NCRA's website includes a listing of certified court reporting schools, not all of which offer broadcast captioning training. Web searching turned up the following additional college broadcast captioning training programs across the United States.

  • Minnesota (Anoka): Anoka Technical College
  • Pennsylvania (Nanticoke): Luzerne County Community College

Voice writing is an alternative real-time method where a real-time captioner uses speech to dictate everything in the dialogue of a video program word by word, including punctuation and speaker identification. This is done using either a computer headset or a "mask" or voice silencer with a microphone.

The equipment hooks directly into a computer, which produces an instant translation utilizing speech recognition software. This translated text is then automatically distributed by the computer to the closed captioning encoder (a piece of equipment that puts the captions into the video itself).

Software and Equipment

Many companies provide captioning software for both offline and live captioning. Some of the better-known companies are:

  • Cheetah International
  • CPC Computer Prompting & Captioning Co.
  • Dictionary Jumpstart (for data dictionaries)
  • Rapidtext
  • Softel-USA

Stenographic equipment for real-time captioning can be purchased from companies that supply court reporters, such as Stenograph.

Finding Available Captioning Jobs

NCRA also maintains a job bank that primarily lists court reporting jobs. Finally, some captioning service providers may also post job listings on their websites.

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