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Charlie Swinbourne

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Charlie is a writer and filmmaker, and was responsible for the award-winning Coming Out, which sees "a deaf boy go to his hearing mother with a surprising revelation" - watch it to find out what it is. He then went on make his directing debut with Four Deaf Yorkshiremen, and followed it up with a sequel. You can check out Charlie's personal website too.

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Bring on the palantypist

10th January 2010

When signing doesn't fit the bill, there's another way of ensuring clearer communication if you are hearing impaired. Charlie Swinbourne explains BSL versus palantype.
palantypist keyboard
When I'm not scribbling down random thoughts for this column, changing my daughter's nappies or trying to reduce my Christmas belly by cycling like mad on our exercise bike, I lead another life - scriptwriting for deaf films and plays.

I'm about four years, two plays and five short films down the road. Along the way I've worked with talented deaf actors, directors and crew - communicating with them all in sign language and writing scripts to suit signed dialogue.

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to spend three weeks in the story department of a big TV soap - the first time I'd written with solely hearing writers and producers. I had assumed it would be a similar process to what I was used to.

On my first day, it was amazing to walk the set, wander through rooms the characters live in, and spot a few famous faces. The next day though, I got a shock. I attended a script writing conference with twenty of the most talented TV writers in Britain, and found myself unable to follow what they were saying.

At this point it'd be easy for me to blame someone else and say they didn't provide me with the right support ... but being honest, I only had myself to blame. I'd naively told them I'd be able to get by through lipreading and listening 'hard.'

What I didn't realise is that listening to twenty people flinging around details about the lives of multiple characters, their ongoing storylines and backstories, was a different challenge to office meetings with a handful of colleagues.

For the next two days, the conference carried on around me. I tried to look interested, consumed lots of sugar and focused on stopping my eyes from shutting. I hoped no one would notice that I was totally, utterly lost.

This might sound strange but I have fond memories of the remainder of those three weeks. When in the office I got on, wrote storylines and developed my skills, but never really recovered from the way I'd started. I learnt an important lesson.

Recently, though, I got another chance. I was asked to write a trial script for a different series which involved spending a day in, you've guessed it, another conference. This time I decided I'd do things differently. I needed help. So I booked a palantypist.
close up of palantypist screen
The best way of explaining what a palantypist provides you with is to compare it to live subtitles on TV. As people speak, their words appear on a screen after a short delay, so you can read what they are saying.

The on-screen text doesn't get generated by voice recognition - though I'm sure existing technology will soon allow this to happen - it is provided by a human being, a trained palantypist who types furiously onto a phonetic keyboard.

Palantypists have been compared to musicians because they have to press a specific combination of keys so their computer selects the right word - not a million miles away from a pianist pressing the right keys on a piano to produce the correct chord.

You might wonder why I didn't use the more traditional sign language interpreter as I can sign fluently. Hopefully you'll find it useful if I explain my choice here.

I had two reasons. The first is that BSL and English are two very different languages, with a different grammar and structure. I wanted to know what people were saying word for word, so I could make my own mind up about what they meant, rather than relying on an interpreter's, well, interpretation.

The second is that I still planned to listen and lipread what was being said in the room, except with a palantypist I could glance at the screen for words and sentences I missed. Using sign language, I'd have to look at the interpreter continuously to get the full meaning.

Unfortunately, palantypists are expensive, and booking one involved not only contacting a legal services firm (because palantypists often transcribe court cases), it also meant that for the first time, I'd be dealing with Access to Work, a government scheme designed to meet employer's access costs.

Luckily writing the trial script was seen as constituting a job interview because it would lead to paid work if successful, so ATW agreed to pay - though it took a fair bit of persuading.

I must admit that I was slightly nervous about attending the meeting with someone I'd never met before. What would they be like? Would I want people there to think I was associated with them? The palantypist was friendly right from the start - and keen to find out what I most wanted her to focus on. I wasn't too sure about her choice of laptop colour though: fluorescent pink!

I discovered another benefit to having her there; everyone became aware that I was deaf without me having to explain myself. Her presence acted as a continuing reminder as the day went on, making for better communication all round.

For the first half hour I barely looked at her laptop because I was able to follow everyone speaking. Then, just as with the first conference, I started to tire. But this time, when I missed things, I only had to look at her screen to check exactly what had been said. I usually have to concentrate very hard but this almost felt ... relaxing.

When I decided to contribute to the conversation, I could do so with absolute certainty that I knew what I was referring to, hadn't misheard and wasn't about to make a fool of myself - well, not for reasons of deafness, anyway.

One thing I've always been bad at is names. Whenever people have an unusual name, or a surname that isn't Brown, Jones or Smith, I can't make it out. But this time I had every name written out for me. So speaking with people during breaks was helped along, too.

The day went well. And it got better two days later, when the palantypist sent through a 28 page (no kidding) document which featured every single word that had been uttered.

When I received it, I felt it was almost unfair. With this record in my hands I had a clear advantage over every one else ... but I'm not one to kick up a fuss!
Palantypist images courtesy of RNID -Royal National Institute for Deaf people.

Comments

    • 1. At 8:03pm on 12 Jan 2010, debs515 wrote:

      Interesting article - I've been to a conference where a palantypist was used because many of the attenders were older and hard of hearing. I'm a hearing person myself (if that's the right term!) and I did notice an awful lot of mistakes made - maybe we just had a bad one but alongside the small slips, often quite important things were either rephrased with a completely different emphasis or sometimes missed out completely. Definitely better than having no support but perhaps not always brilliant...?

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    • 2. At 00:22am on 13 Jan 2010, djchur wrote:

      Sounds like this system would be brilliant in university lectures. An improvement on my radio aid, which is subject to interference and certainly doesn't give me a transcribed copy of the lecture afterwards!

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    • 3. At 10:41am on 13 Jan 2010, Charlie Swinbourne wrote:

      Re comment one - yes there can be occasional mistakes, a word can come up that is similar to the actual word used, you sometimes have to use you intuition to guess the right phrase. In my case there were very few errors and I was pretty happy overall. Worth remembering also - just how quickly the palantypist is typing, keeping up with speech - not easy!

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    • 4. At 4:18pm on 13 Jan 2010, Ian N wrote:

      My day job would be impossible without palantypists. Whilst I can sign, I find it quite tiring to follow an interpreter all day long.

      What always surprises me is that deaf young people rarely seem aware of the existence of palantypists. I didn't know they were available when I was younger, and they would have been perfect for me at university.

      Ian
      http://iannoon.wordpress.com

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    • 5. At 11:20am on 15 Jan 2010, Paul Jamieson wrote:

      As a profoundly deaf person (lipreading, non-signer) working in the statutory sector, I have to attend a wide range of meetings, from very small (2-3 people), to large (15-20), sometimes chairing them.

      I have to say, I couldn't do my job without communication support - it is absolutely vital, and were Access to Work ever ended...well, I don't think I want to think about that!

      I do use palantypists or stenographers (similar thing), but also electronic notetakers, which are notetakers who type the conversation into laptops, similarly to palantypists, but using a normal keyboard, instead of the unique keyboard Charlie describes.

      What I have found is that they are all very useful, but each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and it takes time to get to know which form of communication support works best for you in different situations.

      Personally, because of the cost, I tend to use electronic notetakers for smaller or less important meetings as they are slower and do not get as many words - best way of describing it is they are interpreting what is said, and then summarising it. So you do tend to only receive what they think is important - difficult if you work in a specialised field.

      For the bigger or more important meetings, I use palantypists as they are faster and more accurate.

      I do find that the quality varies, particularly with electronic notetakers, as whilst some are really good at receiving information that comes in one context and summarising it (like in university lectures), some really struggle in meetings, where they are required to capture and convey different points of view. The company I use to hire notetakers know that I won't use particular notetakers because they can't cope with the meetings - sounds harsh I know, but it is up to me to ensure I have the right tools in place to be able to do my job.

      Re Ian's point of view - I used a manual notetaker when I was at university, which was great because they are the most flexible form of communication support (other than BSL/lip-speaking), and so can easily work in a variety of lecture rooms (not being reliant on there being power socket!)! I think also personally I didn't want to stand out or anything at university, and whilst people knew I was deaf and what my notetaker was for, there is a difference between having someone with a pad of paper making notes for you, and someone with a very obvious laptop and free standing keyboard! We sometimes had discussions in very cramped lecturers' offices - I wonder how palantypists would have coped with that!

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    • 6. At 11:20am on 15 Jan 2010, Paul Jamieson wrote:

      As a profoundly deaf person (lipreading, non-signer) working in the statutory sector, I have to attend a wide range of meetings, from very small (2-3 people), to large (15-20), sometimes chairing them.

      I have to say, I couldn't do my job without communication support - it is absolutely vital, and were Access to Work ever ended...well, I don't think I want to think about that!

      I do use palantypists or stenographers (similar thing), but also electronic notetakers, which are notetakers who type the conversation into laptops, similarly to palantypists, but using a normal keyboard, instead of the unique keyboard Charlie describes.

      What I have found is that they are all very useful, but each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and it takes time to get to know which form of communication support works best for you in different situations.

      Personally, because of the cost, I tend to use electronic notetakers for smaller or less important meetings as they are slower and do not get as many words - best way of describing it is they are interpreting what is said, and then summarising it. So you do tend to only receive what they think is important - difficult if you work in a specialised field.

      For the bigger or more important meetings, I use palantypists as they are faster and more accurate.

      I do find that the quality varies, particularly with electronic notetakers, as whilst some are really good at receiving information that comes in one context and summarising it (like in university lectures), some really struggle in meetings, where they are required to capture and convey different points of view. The company I use to hire notetakers know that I won't use particular notetakers because they can't cope with the meetings - sounds harsh I know, but it is up to me to ensure I have the right tools in place to be able to do my job.

      Re Ian's point of view - I used a manual notetaker when I was at university, which was great because they are the most flexible form of communication support (other than BSL/lip-speaking), and so can easily work in a variety of lecture rooms (not being reliant on there being power socket!)! I think also personally I didn't want to stand out or anything at university, and whilst people knew I was deaf and what my notetaker was for, there is a difference between having someone with a pad of paper making notes for you, and someone with a very obvious laptop and free standing keyboard! We sometimes had discussions in very cramped lecturers' offices - I wonder how palantypists would have coped with that!

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    • 7. At 03:18am on 18 Jan 2010, Cornishandy wrote:

      This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

    • 8. At 9:35pm on 21 Jan 2010, weezytheseamonkey wrote:

      As a Palantypist myself, I read all your comments with interest. In response to Debs515's comment, though, I feel it's only fair to point out that whilst obviously there are Palantypists with varying degrees of skill and experience - the quality of the feed you receive depends enormously on the kind of speakers you're taking down, and the amount of info you're provided with beforehand. For example, when people are muttering indistinctly, have very strong accents, speak very quickly or there is a large amount of overspeaking, it will make a huge difference to how accurate your Palantypist's note will be. Similarly, if there are a lot of technical or job-specific words or names which the Palantypist was not provided with beforehand, she won't have had a chance to input them into her shorthand dictionary and therefore the computer will sometimes be unable to translate them correctly into longhand. The agency I work for requires its writers to have a minimum level of 98% accuracy, so I feel I have to say something in our defence!

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    • 9. At 9:24pm on 25 Jan 2010, weezytheseamonkey wrote:

      As a Palantypist myself, I read all your comments with interest. In response to Debs515's comment, though, I feel it's only fair to point out that whilst obviously there are Palantypists with varying degrees of skill and experience - the quality of the feed you receive depends enormously on the kind of speakers you're taking down, and the amount of info you're provided with beforehand. For example, when people are muttering indistinctly, have very strong accents, speak very quickly or there is a large amount of overspeaking, it will make a huge difference to how accurate your Palantypist's note will be. Similarly, if there are a lot of technical or job-specific words or names which the Palantypist was not provided with beforehand, she won't have had a chance to input them into her shorthand dictionary and therefore the computer will sometimes be unable to translate them correctly into longhand. The agency I work for requires its writers to have a minimum level of 98% accuracy, so I feel I have to say something in our defence!

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    • 10. At 8:25pm on 28 Jan 2010, M M wrote:

      I would never use BSL at a meeting if I was the sole deaf person there or even if there were 2 or 3 of us, I opt for palentype every time. I even opted for it AT a BDA meet where everything was in BSL,and found a number of signers marveling at how much detail I was getting from the meeting they, weren't, and I was asked for print outs so they could read after too. Knowing as we do, deaf only go anywhere to talk to each other lol... I'd be there trying to follow what the meeting was about, the people next to me were talking at entire cross-purposes about some deaf bowling event in Bristol.... (As they tend to do!). Let's be honest, BSL just doesn't cut it in mixed company...

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