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Closed Caption

San Cassiano

The JCR recently corresponded with Dr. Fausto Ramondelli, a reporter in the Italian Parliament and president of Intersteno. In addition to these responsibilities, he has been involved with the effort to provide captioning of Italian news broadcasts. Here, he brings us up-to-date on their progress.
How did you become involved in CART and then the captioning project?
I started my activity in the Italian Senate in 1982 as a parliamentary shorthand reporter. In the late '80s and early '90s, I took part in international contests and developed some corrections to my technique in order to achieve higher speed with a satisfactory level of accuracy. That experience has led me to write a method manual and to teach in several educational programs. I was appointed a member of the Italian Shorthand Academy, where I started studying the possibility of using the shorthand machine as a device for subtitling. In this phase the friendship with American colleagues and the information gleaned through reading your magazine have been very useful.
As you know, in Italy there were not many skilled reporters in the 1980s except in the parliaments. Only in 1989 did we have reporting introduced in the tribunal as a consequence of the penal code reform. Reporters have grown in number and in ability to write accurately along with the dissemination of machine shorthand reporting in the country. In the early 1990s, the system (machine and human resources) was ready to meet the challenge of captioning, but only in recent years have the accuracy and the average speed grown to the necessary level.
Providing CART has been promoted at conventions held by associations of the deaf community (namely FIADDA, an association of parents of deaf children). The first performances (by Prof. Marcelo Melani, who imports the Stenograph machine into Italy, and me) were impressive and demonstrated that it was possible to reach the goal; on that basis, the system has been bettered, and we have achieved excellent results.
Two years ago, the deaf community held a protest march near the RAI (Italian broadcast) buildings, asking for the evening news to be subtitled. It was correctly sustained that that was their right, since the local laws (national and European) already required the authorities to take all steps to make television communication accessible to hearing-impaired individuals. Due to financial obstacles and a misconception of the problem, up to that moment there were only offline captions (movies, serials); no captions were provided for news or entertainment programs.
As a result of the protest, RAI promised that as of January 1, 2000, the evening news would be subtitled. They did not even know how to accomplish this (although many attempts were done in previous years to solicit RAI to provide that service). They asked to set up in a few days a group of people and machines for providing the service, which started experimentally December 23, 1999. As an expert of this activity, I have been asked to give advice on skill improvement and the personnel selection (five captioners), and to check the quality of the work, in the attempt to provide the best service that is possible within our situation. In Italy, we can count approximately 200 reporters as the maximum; they all come from public courses that lasted only a few hundred hours (generally 500 hours). They can reach very slow speeds of 120 words per minute, while the talking speed is an average of 150 words per minute. Only a few of them can reach higher speeds. You can probably imagine that our attempt is strictly linked to those few people who can do this.
Are the people who are trying to caption the same ones who are trying to provide the equivalent of CART reporting?
The demand is not yet great in Italy, although I feel it is about to grow. So far, the people who provide the news captions are employed for providing CART in rare conventions. Our program aims to improve the skill of people already working at RAI and also recruit new people who want the challenge of this activity. We are also working to inform broadcasting companies, universities and other operators about the possibilities offered by realtime captioning. I presume that a lot of demand is still hidden behind the lack of awareness of the power of captioning.
Most of the work is still done offline. Three reporters are available in a room together with two to three journalists and typists. A couple of hours before the news is broadcast, the journalists gather video or papers with the contents of the news and pass them to the shorthand reporters, who quickly provide the text file. The file is passed to the typists, who enter it in the storyboard and divide it in three-line blocks. The text blocks are ready to be transmitted when the images and the audio are broadcast. One of the journalists remains in the area where the news is prepared, collecting all the materials as soon as possible and calling the room as he or she has something to dictate to the reporters. Should the content not be available for any reason before the broadcast, one journalist listens to the news and simultaneously dictates a summary to the reporter, who writes "directly to the screen."
This very complicated system is due to many factors. First, journalists protect their role and do not allow it to be performed by unauthorized people such as the reporters. Second, the shortage of very skilled reporters has rendered impossible a preferred selection of reporters based also on their cultural skill; therefore, it is not possible to leave to them the responsibility of editing the captions. There is a dispute between those who think that deaf people cannot follow the whole transcription, what would be too fast for them, and others (I agree with this) who say that deaf people sharpen their capability of reading very quickly and should have the right to choose which part to exclude from their own attention. (Feedback from the deaf community has not been completely clear on this issue.) Although in a limited extension, some parts are therefore eliminated, and the journalists deem that they alone have the knowledge to decide which parts can be abbreviated.
I can say this is a good beginning, but only a beginning. As the service will become increasingly requested and provided, many elements can be modified and improved.
From your description, the reaction from the deaf community to CART and captioning has been positive.
The deaf community in Italy (as everywhere, I suppose) is very complex and composite. There are very big associations whose aims seem to be only to provide deaf people with a monetary assistance check every month. They are not interested in a cultural improvement. They love to stay all together, have tours, sponsor their own events, and so on. The sign language groups have a very big lobby; they refused alternative ways of accessibility because they are convinced that theirs is the best way for deaf people to understand and communicate (and also, I would say, because there are many sign translators who desire to improve their earnings). The most sensitive associations are those comprised of parents of deaf children and others who believe in the integration of deaf people into the hearing community for reasons including encouraging improvement of their speaking capabilities.
We have had many contacts with universities. The cultural level of the deaf community is improving, and young people have reached the university and have asked for CART in the schools. All in all, the response of the deaf community to the evening news captioning has been positive. I am expecting new pressures toward increasing the number of transmissions to be captioned. >

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