Vermont, The President, and Captioning Advocacy

The President’s Visit to Vermont — a Small Step Forward for Captioning Advocacy

by Norma Miller, RPR, CRR, CCP, CBC

When it was announced that President Obama would be visiting Vermont on March 30th, 2012, it was the cause of a great deal of excitement. It had been 17 years since a sitting president had visited the Green Mountain State.

By all appearances, everyone underestimated the positive response that this visit would generate amongst the citizens of the tiny state. Tickets for the fundraising reception for the Obama re-election campaign quickly sold out, and a larger venue was procured. That venue was also sold out, to a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 4,400 people. For a state with a population of only 624,000, this is quite remarkable.

Ally Horn, a 4th-year medical student with hearing loss, was one of the ticket purchasers. Ally’s hearing loss became evident in her college years. By the time she was a second-year med student, she began utilizing CART for all of her lectures. So when Ally purchased a ticket to this exciting event in her life — it was the first time she had attended any sort of political gathering or rally — she requested accommodation for her hearing loss.

There wasn’t a place on the event website to indicate a request for accommodation, but there was an e-mail address for questions concerning the event. Ally sent her request for realtime captioning to that e-mail address. The response was quick, but missed the mark:  “Thank you for your e-mail. We will indeed have ASL interpreters for this event.” The New England campaign organizer indicated that this was the first time that captioning had ever been requested for a fundraising function.

Then began a somewhat bumpy, twisty, and turny road of advocacy and education that included self-advocacy on the part of Ally, and active participation from Dr. Lauren Storck, founder of Collaborate for Communication Access via Captioning (CCAC), as well as other CCAC members.

Over the next couple of weeks, a total of about 50 emails were sent to the organizers of the event and others. Ally started by explaining that she lost her hearing later in life and does not know ASL. She reiterated her request for realtime captioning or CART. Others in CCAC, including Rene Pellerin, a Deaf-Blind member, wrote to educate about the varying extents and types of hearing loss and therefore the varying accommodation needs. Some of the e-mails offered up statistics on numbers of the general population who rely on, and benefit from, captions, as distinct from American Sign Language. Suggestions were made about how to get a sponsor or donor to pay for the service, if necessary. Advisory opinions were solicited and received from The New England ADA Center and the University of Vermont (UVM) ACCESS Department.

Eventually, the entire story and complete background of the request and how it was (or was not) progressing was explained to the professionals at the University’s Conference and Events Department, the local handler of the event. This was the turning point when movement seemed to finally happen. UVM has always been a shining star in providing CART and captioning, and in this instance, Denise Zang, Conference Services and Marketing Manager, proved to be a savvy and helpful advocate in getting it organized for the Presidential event. She was the liaison with the campaign, and eventually it was determined that CART would be provided — sadly not to the entire crowd, but just to Ally.

Ms. Zang then advocated for the needs for setup, as specified by the CART provider: A four-foot table; two chairs; a seating position where the CART provider can hear well, but not be blasted out (and potentially have her own hearing damaged!) by speakers; ready access to electricity; and “protection” from the public as much as possible, to prevent distractions or damage to equipment.

From our perspective, it would have been optimum if the entire crowd could have read the captions. Statistically speaking, we calculated that approximately 600 people in that audience of 4,000-plus probably would have relied on captions for full access to the event. But given the constraints imposed upon us, Ms. Zang and the campaign setup people got it letter-perfect. They had everything ready for us when we arrived, and they were very accommodating.

You can get a rough idea of our setup for the event in the photo at the left. Ally was sitting on the left and the captioner on the right side of the table.

Just as those of us in the captioning advocacy community would expect, when we were all set up and before things got started, several people in the crowd approached to ask how they could get captions. Several of the speakers had rather gravelly, low-pitched voices that were difficult to hear. Sadly, the captioned product could not be offered to them.

It was a rousing event, with lots of ambient noise, several featured speakers — including, of course, the guest of honor, President Obama — and a rock band. Ally has difficulty hearing lyrics. We didn’t have a set list ahead of the event, and so we used our laptop and the wireless signal to look up the lyrics of the songs as best we could while the band was playing.

It was a thrilling day, a wonderful event that I’m sure Ally will remember with good feelings for a long time, because she was not only there in person, but she could participate fully. In large part, it is through the good work of the CCAC and its members that the special accommodations were arranged.

We feel confident that, had it been advertised, captions would have been made available to anyone in need. If more people knew that they could request CART or captioning, many more people would have availed themselves of it. Possibly even more tickets would have been sold to those who didn’t know that they can request captioning and who regularly deny themselves the opportunity to attend events because they can’t hear the speakers.

While it seems to us that it took an enormous amount of focused advocacy and energy to get this one event captioned, through that effort we did secure CART — albeit for only the one person who requested it. As Ally said when we were given the news that CART was being allowed for her: “A small step forward for mankind!”


Norma is a professional CART provider and a member of the CCAC. Her webpage is http://www.cartinvt.com