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Council move upsets deaf TV watchers,1413,82~1726~1905028,00.html

Oakland Tribune
January 21, 2004

IF YOU'RE like many Oakland residents, you may be a frequent kibitzer of Oakland City Council meetings produced live on KTOP-TV (cable Channel 10). They put on quite a show and sometimes you catch a really good one.

Watching at home gives you the freedom to scream, something that would get you thrown out of the council chambers if you were there in person.

But imagine if you couldn't hear what council members were saying, or worse, which one was speaking. It could be a big problem.

Suddenly, it is a problem for deaf people who watch the meetings.

After seven years of faithfully recording every word spoken for instant captioning on the screen, the council has dropped the contract of Jane

James, who has her own firm, Captioning Professional, and by all accounts was doing a fine job, no complaints.

James has a particular interest in serving the deaf community because her husband, Ron English, has been deaf for 10 years and regularly watches the council's doings as do many deaf residents.

It was a city move to save money. By going on the cheap, the council will save $65,000. That sounds good unless you're deaf. Then it's obvious Oakland's deaf community takes the hit.

The council went out to bid on captioning services and a new contract has been given to Rapidtext of Newport Beach, which records meetings by "remote listening."

Rapidtext puts listeners on the phone when the council meets, usually on Tuesday nights. The listeners work from their homes and can be plugged into the meetings from any city in the country, including the East Coast. The firm's base is in Newport Beach. This is not a "Buy Oakland" deal.

As for the service, the listeners don't know who is speaking when they record the comments so the verbatim words are not attributed on the screen to particular council members. Not yet, anyway.

Last week, the screen showed little arrows to indicate there was a change in speakers. But viewers didn't know who the speakers were.

James watched the new system and said there were many gaffs, including one identifying a city staffer as a council member. At the same meeting, the microphone went dead. "They lost all of what was said during that rather long time," said James.

City Clerk Ceda Floyd, who instituted the system by council order, says the firm is training listeners to recognize council members by voice.

"They are learning who the voices belong to," she says, "And in time, they will be able to attach the right name to the quote."

The listeners may eventually recognize the council, but learning the voices of staff who appear infrequently will be more difficult.

Switching from the Captioning Professionals contract for $150,160 to Rapidtext of Newport Beach for $90,000 will save $65,000.

Floyd is optimistic about the new system, because San Francisco and San Jose have been using Rapidtext without a problem, she says She has appointed a committee of deaf people to assess the system and advise how it can be improved if they find something not working.

But James says the committee shouldn't consist of only deaf folks because they won't be able to discern if the spoken words are accurate.

"This committee will be like a blind man being an art critic," says James.

David Weiss, a deaf resident, wrote the council: "There is no substitute for a live interpreter or transcriber. The ability to see and understand who is talking is much greater when you are in the same room or at least in close proximity to who is speaking ... and when there are many and varied speakers with a variety of accents and mannerisms."

As for council watchers who are not hearing impaired but don't know the members well enough to recognize their voices, Floyd says the captioning will be directly under the image of the council member, who have name plaques.

"When you consider that televised captioning is the only way deaf and hard of hearing persons have to listen to council meetings and the wide array of discussions at those meetings, it is crucial that the service correctly relays all that is said," said Weiss.

It seems to me the council should rearrange its financial priorities or will it turn its own deaf ear to the deaf?

E-mail Peggy Stinnett at .

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