The Interpreting/Captioning Unit (ICU) has been a nationally renowned unit in the University of Minnesota’s Disability Resource Center (DRC), representing an ideal model for accommodation service-provision in academia. After two decades of ensuring the presence of an in-house captioning team on the Twin Cities campus, DRC leadership has announced a concerning decision to lay off its entire team of unionized (AFSCME Local 3937) captionists in August. They will be replaced by external CART vendors/independent contractors.
Staff captionists were told that none of the current or former users of captioning services had been consulted (nor would they be) and that the decision was not open for discussion. Leadership dismissed staff concerns—about the capacity of local agencies to support the large volume of campus needs—by explaining that remote services had become more abundant and less expensive during the pandemic.
Remote captioning had been practical when most of the university was operating virtually. Each person had a microphone, spoke one at a time, and could mute themselves to keep background noise to a minimum. It was ideal for clear audio. However, upon returning to in-person operations, remote captionists usually rely on a main speaker having a mic and/or the built-in laptop mic to pick up other voices – in rooms as small as an office or as large as a lecture hall. Speaker clarity is dependent on how close they are to the laptop and the amount of background noise. Additionally, someone captioning from out-of-state may lack context or familiarity with our local news, leaders, organizations, and the vast array of research and programs the university boasts. This is vital information for the accuracy of the captions provided and for understanding any words/names that a captionist did not quite hear.
People in the room also lose a resource for making last minute adjustments for accessibility. An in-person captionist can be a supportive advocate for the person using services, allowing them to keep their disability status private if they wish. Presenters and organizers can approach captionists for quick questions regarding how to turn on captions for media and how to get accurately captioned media. These collaborative relationships formed in the field can accelerate positive changes towards a more accessible, inclusive university culture.
The greatest concern is that disabled folks are having this decision made for them. The choice is being removed to have a dedicated, community-oriented captionist in the room with all the speakers. Getting in-person services becomes a special request that is dependent on the limited capacity of local agencies. The choice of captioning that fits individual needs or to have verbatim transcription becomes only verbatim transcription.
The captionists of the University of Minnesota love their work. Many are disabled and chose this career to continue providing services within their community.
Please fight the injustice of the university claiming that “responsible spending” means canceling community-based services. Choice should remain with disabled folks.
Sign our petition: https://tinyurl.com/CaptioningPetitionUMN
This letter was written by the Captioning Team, Minneapolis Minnesota.