5 Insane Realities Of Captioning Deaf People's Conversations

You would assume that the only people paid to listen to your phone calls are those government agents huddled in a van down the street because you once did a Google search for, "Can you really make napalm out of orange juice?" But, there is a whole other category of people who get insights into the weird shit we say over the phone, and they work for phone captioning services.

These are services for the deaf, elderly, or otherwise impaired people who need their phone calls translated into text, with an employee listening to the call and either typing it out or repeating it into a mic. If you think this sounds like a pretty straightforward or even dull job, holy shit, are you wrong about that. We talked to a man and woman who worked for a couple of these services, and they said ...

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5
Yes, You Have To Caption Elderly Phone Sex

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"Wait, they literally pay somebody to just listen to private phone calls and translate what's being said into text, even when it's old people having nasty phone sex with each other? Why don't they just use voice recognition software?"

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"Oh yeah, maybe sock that heard deck."

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Well, some of them do, but if you've ever actually tried to use voice recognition software, you know why it still takes a human operator -- it works great if you're speaking loudly and slowly in a robotic voice, enunciating every word, with no background noise. But, if the speaker has an accent, talks fast, or slurs words due to a disability, etc., the software churns out word salad. One of our sources, JT, says his company's software only guesses the right words about 40 percent of the time, which is approximately the same amount as if he just pulled a handful of magnetic poetry words out of a bag and farted them onto a fridge. And this is what makes his job ridiculous.

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See, JT's task is to help the software by listening to the call and then repeating what is said into the machine, using a slow monotone that will make it easier for it to translate. And one thing you find out by doing that job is old dudes really jam on phone sex. This would be totally fine, if they weren't using a captioning service that requires him, a person sitting in an office surrounded by other people who aren't hard of hearing, to repeat everything that is being said in a loud, clear robot voice. Are you picturing this?

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Here, let this website help you.

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"One guy called a sex hotline," says JT, "which I got to start mentally preparing myself for, during the interlude of sexy waiting music (cheesy porn music embellished with a tasteful sprinkling of women orgasming). When the call was connected, I transformed into a woman wearing a bikini because I just got out of the pool and I was all sorts of wet. And all my coworkers around me knew it. Then, the heavy breathing and dirty talk started, and I had to caption the entire thing sounding like I was a Dalek in some really fucked up Doctor Who porn parody."

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"EJACULATE!"

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Our other source, Sarah, actually had it worse just by virtue of possessing a female voice. For some guys, that's all it takes: "Late at night, we get people calling in from hospitals and institutions trying to jack off to the operator. A guy asked me to call a number, and it rang about 20 times until it reached voicemail. I asked him what he wanted me to do, and all he said was, 'Redial.' This happened three times, so I called over a supervisor. The supervisor got on the line and immediately disconnected the call. Then, he turned to me and asked, 'Did you not hear him jacking off on the line?' I could hear noises occasionally, but it didn't register."

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4
You're Legally Required To Let Terribleness Go Unreported

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Now, the next thing you need to know is that there is a sort of Prime Directive when it comes to doing this job -- the operators are just transcribing what's said; they're not a part of the conversation. It's actually against the law to intentionally alter what's being said to a client ... even if the operator knows the client being lied to, scammed, or insulted. "Even if it's something simple, like someone trying to remember the name of an actor or what day it is, you can't help," says JT. "One time, two women were trying to remember the name of a celebrity, and I accidentally said it. I don't think either of them realized it was me, and they just kept talking. But, I technically broke the law."

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HR makes you take a "Resisting The Pullman/Paxton Correction" class.

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Sarah works for TTY, which is a government-funded service, and, again, she has to studiously transcribe without judgment, even during the terrifying calls from the aforementioned prisons and institutions -- racism, insults, and elaborate curses included. "I have to repeat, verbatim, what someone is saying, even if it's something that, in any other situation, would qualify me to get an exceptional beating."

And sometimes they really, really want to jump in. For instance, if you've ever been around old people, you've probably noticed three things about them: A) They are your future and you should be terrified of death, B) They tend to be pretty gullible about new technology, and C) Since all their friends are probably dead (like yours will be someday!), they love a good chat whenever they can get it. That makes them a huge, fat target for scammers. "Scam calls are the worst, and we get them all the time," says JT. "But, no matter how hard Grandpa Joe is falling for a scam, all you can do is caption what's going on as accurately as possible."

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"Yes, I am the President, Prime Minister, and Prince of Nigeria."

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Now, if they hear an emergency take place (say, someone is assaulted in the middle of a call), they can report it. But, otherwise, they're just impassive observers. "One woman talked about how she was in bed, and three men pulled her out so hard, she dislocated her shoulder," says JT. "Then, she said that they made dinner for themselves and told her if she wanted any, she'd have to get up and get it herself. That's abuse, plain and simple. She was clearly old and didn't have the strength to take care of herself anymore, so her caretakers (or three oddly considerate kidnappers) decided to rough her up a bit."

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Keep in mind, that call wasn't to the police, she was just telling the story to someone. That is typical -- only one in 14 acts of elder abuse are ever reported to authorities. That's usually because the people being abused are worried it will get their caretakers -- almost always family members -- in trouble. But, unless a crime is occurring, the operators just dutifully transcribe the awful story and move on to the next call.

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It almost makes you wish for geezer phone sex. Almost.

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And when there is an emergency, well ...

3
Captioning A 911 Call Is Chaos

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Knowing what you know about this process, you can guess that there's a delay between speaker and listener, while the operator catches up (usually about four seconds). If that doesn't sound like a long time, try having a conversation where everyone is pausing for that length of time before responding. Now, imagine you're having that conversation in the middle of a life or death emergency.

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So, let's say you just polished off your eighth plate of chili cheese fries in one sitting (good for you!), and, suddenly, you start to feel like you're dying (more than usual). You know some shit is going down, and you need help, so you dial 911. The dispatcher is speaking quickly, trying to assess the situation and keep you calm until an ambulance arrives. The only problem? The captioning agent can't caption fast enough to keep up with 911's instructions to help you live to see another chili-cheese-fry sunrise.

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"Dammit, I'm at 90 words a minute! I'm giving 'er all she's got!"

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"This happened to one of my coworkers," says JT. "Fortunately, it only took the ambulance about five minutes to get there, but everything up to that moment was a frustrating rush against the slow, meticulous guideline of captioning." Sarah's view is even more alarming: "Captioning emergencies doesn't happen often, but when it does, there are so many roadblocks that the likelihood of failure far outweighs any positive outcomes."

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In fact, the possibility of you straight-up dying because they couldn't caption fast or accurately enough to save you is significant enough that JT's company's liability waiver for 911 calls encompasses pretty much every possible situation, including, "delays, transmission errors, network outages, acts of God, or other occurrences" that may arise from using their service to call 911.

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"We tried to call your heart attack in, but then the plague of frogs hit, soooooo ..."

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Though we suppose if your emergency call gets disconnected due to a literal "act of God," maybe it's best if you just ... let the act take its course. There's no reason to make a paramedic risk getting struck by a bolt of wrathful lightning when your beef is clearly with the creator Himself.

2
You Learn How Shitty Customer Service Is For Old People

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Doing this job means having to sit in on some truly horrible customer service calls, which are unpleasant even when operators aren't dealing with A) elderly or disabled types who are still baffled by flip phones or B) the infuriating caption pauses in between their instructions and the customer saying, "Where's the 'Any' key?"

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It's one of the few times the service chat box would actually be an improvement.

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"Customer service never has any patience for the people who need their help the most," says JT. "I captioned a customer service rep who had a really thick accent and who eventually got so frustrated, he dropped the accent and started cussing out my client -- all of which I had to speak in a monotone voice and caption to this poor guy who just wanted to know how to pay his bill online." We're assuming that guy somehow knew the call wasn't being monitored for quality assurance purposes.

The job also makes it very clear that customer service reps have absolutely no idea how to explain things in simple terms once they figure out the client sometimes thinks he's still in 'Nam. "A customer service rep will say something like, 'The start button is at the bottom left of the screen,' and the client, predictably, just gets more confused. They could have said something like, 'The start button looks like a flag,' but they don't have time to care and then everyone involved gets frustrated."

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And, suddenly, both ends are just getting "fuck" over and over again.

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Because, obviously, it's Nana's fault that guy had to get a customer service job at the cable company because the thought "Who needs a GED? The economy's fine!" was a trendy life philosophy back in 2008.

1
This Job Messes With Your Brain

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Aside from a newfound insight into the phone sex habits of the elderly and an overwhelming fear of getting old yourself, there's something this job does to your brain. Have you ever met a guy who came back from the military and couldn't stop talking in a tone that suggested he was barking orders, even when asking for extra ketchup at the drive-through? Or, have you ever gone straight from hanging with friends to having dinner at grandma's house and found yourself repeatedly saying "fuck" in front of her, no matter how hard you tried to stop?

Well, when you spend 40 hours a week talking like a robot on the job, that sometimes carries over into talking like a robot off the job. It's just insanely hard to switch from Work Voice to a normal, lively voice full of hope and dreams. As Sarah says, "If someone is talking too quickly or I'm waiting for a line to connect, I'm supposed to say, 'One moment, please.' This habit bleeds into regular conversation, and, instead of using normal delay signals such as 'uhh' or 'umm' when I'm thinking, I'll say, 'One moment, please,' as my semi-robot brain figures out the next thing I want to say."

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"Buffering ... buffering ... buff-"

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JT's side effects are arguably even weirder. "For the software to include the appropriate punctuation, I have to say 'question mark' or 'period' without inflection. When you're eating dinner with your family, and 'So how was your day question mark' pops out of your mouth, it's kind of hard to convince your kids that daddy hasn't been replaced by a cyborg bent on destroying the human race."

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"Continue to eat your dinner comma human children period."

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Especially when the truth about how he spent his day is actually quite a bit weirder than that.

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For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Weird Realities Of Life As Swinger and 5 Realities Of Having The Government Ban Medication You Need.

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