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.
Bring on the palantypist
10th January 2010
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.
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!
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