I was one of the organizers of !!Con, a free conference about the joy, excitement and surprise of programming that happened two weeks ago in New York.

We did a number of things that I think helped set the conference apart – for instance, we had an anonymous talk review process. But one thing we did that I’m particularly glad of was having real-time captioning of the talks at the conference. As each presenter spoke, Mirabai Knight transcribed the text of their talk on her steno machine, in real time, at up to 260 words per minute, and projected it on a screen that the whole room could see.

Mirabai Knight, captioning a talk at !!Con.  Photo by Kamal Marhubi.
Mirabai Knight, captioning a talk at !!Con. Photo by Kamal Marhubi.

Why did we do this? In addition to “because it was awesome”, I mean?

It first occurred to us that we’d want real-time transcription at !!Con when, about a month before the conference, we learned that one of our speakers, Darius Bacon, had unfortunately lost one of his hearing aids. We knew that Darius probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy the other talks unless we did something.

I had known about Mirabai and her work from this 2010 interview with her on the Geek Feminism blog, in which she discusses how she got involved in real-time transcription for the deaf and hard of hearing and how that led to Plover, the open source steno engine that she helped create. It was pure luck that Mirabai lives in New York and was able to attend !!Con in person (although she can do transcription remotely as well). One of the !!Con sponsors, Venmo, agreed to pay her very reasonable hourly rate, and we were all set. I was delighted, since I’d been hoping that Mirabai would be at the conference one way or another, anyway.

Was it worth it? No question about it. Darius said that having real-time captioning made !!Con “by far the best” conference he’d ever been to:

But it wasn’t just Darius who was helped. As Mirabai points out on her website:

When an event needs to be made inclusive, projecting the CART display for the benefit of the entire room can be the best way to provide universal access for Deaf, late deafened, and hard of hearing people, as well as people who might have some degree of hearing loss but who don’t self-identify as hard of hearing or deaf. CART is also useful for English language learners and people with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, or ADHD. When the CART display is available to every audience member, no one has to feel singled out or as if they’re demanding special privileges. Everyone benefits.

And the !!Con attendees agreed:

As if all that weren’t reason enough to have live transcription at a conference, just having Mirabai around made !!Con much better because stenography is fascinating. During the breaks, Mirabai demoed her software a bunch of times and even let people try out her steno machine, which was a huge hit. I don’t think there was any time during the conference when she wasn’t surrounded by a crowd of curious people wanting to learn how steno works.

Finally, having real-time transcription was great because it means we now have a written record of all the talks from the conference. We did some light editing of the transcripts to clean them up, but for the most part, the files are exactly as they came from Mirabai. She’s that good! (That said, if you see a mistake in one of the transcripts, feel free to file a pull request to fix it.)

We’re so glad we did this. If you’re a conference organizer, your next conference should have real-time transcription. (And you can hire Mirabai to do it; if she’s not available, she may be able to recommend someone else!) It’s a small investment that will make your conference better for everyone.