“It was unbelievably draining. The emotional story after emotional story. When I got done, I was in tears. It’s hard to listen to all that for hours and hours and hours. But when you think about the importance of what you’re doing, it’s worth it. You’ve got somebody in that community that has hearing loss. How important are those updates? You just have to balance it with the beauty of the gift and the service we provide,” says Karen Skow, owner of Access Resource, LLC.
In a garage studio about 10 minutes outside St. James, Karen recounted her experience covering Hurricane Katrina in 2005. If you don’t have hearing loss or know someone who does, it’s not often we give thought to where and when closed captioning services will be used, but to those who need it, it’s vital.
Captioning services have been around for a long time, but with the rise of digital technologies, specifically personal computers and smartphones, closed captioning has become ubiquitous for those that require it to carry out day to day functions.
Access Resource started by Skow in 2007 was the culmination of years of work in different disciplines with the same core skill set: transcription. Trained as a court reporter, Skow spent nearly 17 years in the justice system handling depositions and stenography work, but now she is bringing her expertise providing communication access through real-time captioning to thousands of people across the country.
“When I went to school, they didn’t even have captions,” Karen recalled. Closed captioning didn’t become a mainstay in America until 1993 through enforcement measures rolled out by the FCC. Still, for Skow, she didn’t break into captioning right away. “When you went to school, you were trained as a court reporter and you either did the freelance route or you went into an officialship where you worked for a judge.”
Officialships meant being designated a judge or to a courtroom, for Skow, she was assigned to Judge Moonan, a long time, well-loved, Mankato judge, for six years and then she worked with two different judges in St. James.
But Skow wouldn’t settle for just working in a court system, she wanted to improve her skills and ensure that she was the best at her job that she could be. “You had to change to become a good real-time writer, you have to get really good and change things. I started providing real-time writing for my judge just to improve my skill,” says Skow.
Working day in and day out in the judicial system can take a mental toll. For depositions and stenography, it’s impossible not to process what is being said as you’re transcribing.
“Honestly, the change for me was more environmental. It’s just so much negativity that comes through the court system in a daily schedule that I got tired of that.” Skow, being industrious, said that the judicial system didn’t exactly reward her for improving her skills either.
“Rather than come home and be frustrated, I looked into captioning. At first, I didn’t know if I could do it because it’s just so different,” says Skow of the career change.
Starting the Captioning Journey
Most of us without hearing impairments pay little attention to captioning. There’s evidence that younger generations actually prefer to have their media captioned for varying reasons, so it’s clear it won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Video-heavy social media sites such as TikTok, Youtube, and Instagram will often employ “open captioning,” which is subtitles underneath the video that are hard-coded into the video file, meaning you can’t turn them off. “Closed captioning” on the other hand are a different component of the media that can be toggled on or off.
With the rise of streaming services, closed captions are pre-loaded into the video file to be turned on at the viewer’s discretion. From a captioning perspective, there is a clear difference between closed captioning on a platform such as Netflix and the closed captioning that happens on live TV.
When captions are provided remotely for a newscast or event, the human captioner obtains the audio directly from the programming source, writes what is said in real-time using their captioning software, then the captions are sent back to the network and displayed on the screen in a matter of seconds. The video stream flows from the network, to the captioner, back to the broadcaster all within a matter of seconds.
These captioners can type at astonishing speeds all while distinguishing the difference in grammar and syntax (i.e. their vs. they’re). Learning more about the captioning world gives you the proper perspective that this is an art and not just someone who can listen and type really fast.
“I went to a four day training in California and immersed myself in [captioning] to see if I could do it with people that were training captioners and knew the business. They believed in me, so I just started working. I’d be a court reporter all day and I’d bring my equipment home every night just to practice,” Karen says of getting started.
The equipment used to create captions isn’t a standard keyboard. A Stenotype writer is a highly specialized device that requires users to think in terms of sounds, vowels, and syllables rather than just spelling words with letters. The closest comparison is a piano keyboard, where stenographers are using both hands in tandem to create an end product, but instead of reading sheet music, they’re listening to human speech.
Karen says of the process, “In my mind, I’m writing it. So when you see me do this,” Karen moves her fingers on the table to mimic typing, “I’m writing it.”
Skow’s brain hears the world differently than we do. Hyper-attuned to how the audio input of her environment would translate to captioning work, her mind is often working overtime. “People don’t realize when you read, you scan. I’m thinking about every “a,” “the,” “but.” I think of every word I hear. So when somebody has an accent or it’s difficult to hear, it’s so much work for me.”
Skow admits that sometimes this type of attunement can have a negative effect on enjoying leisure activities, “When my husband’s watching something on TV where the speaker has a strong accent, I will leave the room. I can’t just conversationally listen to it. I listen for every word and then I’ll get stuck.” A fascinating example of how our neural pathways can be effectively rewired with exposure to the right stimulus.
After the training and quickly adapting to the captioning world, Skow was looking for work. She was eventually hired by a National Captioning Institute (NCI) in Vienna, Virginia. Skow honed her skills further and was put on to national broadcasts in short order. “I did things like MSNBC News, Fox News, CNN, once I got into the news part of it. Sports training was the highest level and final stage of training. And I love sports, that’s one of my favorite things. Once I got into sports I was doing ESPNews and all kinds of sporting events.”
In 2007, Skow left the NCI in pursuit of more independence. She worked for numerous nationwide captioning companies until she started signing her own contracts, giving Access Resource the foundation it needed to grow.
Access Resource Comes to Life
“I have one client who’s deaf-blind. And I had the privilege to work many years with them in all these different environments from junior high to high school to college. They went on a trip to Costa Rica and we set it up so that we could caption the eco tour that she was on,” Skow recalls fondly.
Access Resource isn’t home to the captioners, rather they’re a network of freelancers across the country that utilizes Skows business to find work. Access Resource now has over 100 captioners across the U.S. in dozens of states. Skow brings in the business and distributes it out to the captioners who have availability
While it is a business, in talking to Skow, it’s immediately apparent that Access Resource was started with the desire to help those with disabilities lead a normal life. An estimated 48 million people in America have some form of hearing impairment. While captioning has become demonstrably more accessible in the last decades with the broad internet coverage, there’s still some that lack access.
One would imagine that the bulk of Access Resource’s business comes from those who are aging and need extra help, but their main clients are actually educational institutions. According to Skow, this is because states have often allocated dollars to help students, whereas not many nursing homes are putting on events for their residents that require transcription services.
“When we go into a classroom, we caption everything we hear. We just try to make sure we designate when the professor is speaking versus when it’s a student. We do convocations, we do graduations, any kind of special event they have. So we do a lot of university work. We also work in high schools,” says Karen on the scope of their student services.
That said, Skow and her team did win a grant from Age Friendly Minnesota. But surprisingly, it was not for captioning services. Says Skow, “They will not pay for our services. So the way I wrote the grant is focused on education and community. The goal is to create a video that we can share that’s informational and brings awareness.”
The other part of the grant focuses on collaboration with local communities. Skow hopes to work with major players, such as Mayo, in community outreach. The intention behind these collaborations is twofold: firstly, to get input from healthcare professionals on the direction the informational video should take, and secondly, to potentially augment existing training tools. This would be particularly beneficial for fulfilling DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) requirements. The hope is that by integrating such tools into the training modules of healthcare providers, it would bring about a structural change, making these environments more accommodating for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Still, there are challenges in why captioning is needed at all. “They [perspective groups] think deaf and hard of hearing and they think American Sign Language (ASL), which happens all the time. And so then you have a small group that uses American Sign Language and you have thousands of people that don’t, they’re not served as well,” says Karen.
The vast majority of the deaf and hard of hearing actually do not use ASL, with estimates putting it at around 1 percent in the U.S. or about 500,000 people. Still, Skow has considered adding ASL services for quite some time and is currently in the process of developing an ASL division to provide a wider range of services.
The Future of Captioning
Artificial intelligence is a buzzword that’s being thrown around in every publication in every industry. Its potential is undoubtedly large, but the reality of its implementation is often overstated. On the surface, transcription seems to be an industry that could be quickly replaced by GPTs and AI. But this is one industry where brain-power still reigns supreme.
Auto-generated captions have brought accessibility to millions of people. Almost every video on Facebook and YouTube now allows for computer generated captions, which is better than nothing, but the accuracy wanes, leaving many viewers confused about what was really said.
Skow and her team of captioners aren’t using AI and they’re quite frank about human superiority, “I can say our captioners are some of the best in the nation. They’re averaging 98- 99 percent accuracy.”
Skow personally vets all of her captioners and holds them to a very high standard. Similarly many of them are already certified through the NCRA (The National Court Reporters Association) the governing body that certifies this line of work.
It’s no surprise that near-perfect transcription is a high water mark that robots just simply haven’t hit when considering the hours of training a captioner has to go through. “If you really start paying attention to the captioning you see even on your television, it’s amazing how the accuracy is just not there [with AI],” says Skow.
There are companies that take the automated approach, using AI for rough translation and then feeding that to a human who cleans it up. Skow thinks the approach is better, but there’s still a huge problem: speed.
Karen continues, “For them to do that, there’s a 10 to 12 or more second delay, which is not real-time. When you watch real-time captioning on TV, there’s still going to be a two to three second delay, and that can be frustrating. But when you add in that additional delay, they’ve lost the context of the conversation.”
While always being attuned to sounds can have some downsides, as mentioned previously, Skow’s intent to understand perfectly what is being said is emblematic of the superiority of the human brain, at least for now. However, she’s continuing to keep her eye on the shifts in the industry.
“It’s something I’m constantly monitoring because there have been big changes in the world in general. There have been some changes that I think will be interesting to watch, because there are very, very clear guidelines with the FCC and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) addressing the expectations for captioning.”
From Captioner to CEO
Moving away from personally providing the real-time captioning herself to a focus on creating a company that is a leader in the captioning industry, Skow has built Access Resource on the foundation of service. Even though it has grown in revenue every year, it doesn’t always feel like the best metric to track success.
“It took me a while to come up with what my key metric would be. And really hours is the best way to measure our growth and productivity,” says Skow.
In FY 2022, Skow and her team captioned a whopping 6,800 hours. If you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s about 283 days worth of audio.
Anyone that’s had the pleasure to meet Karen Skow will tell you that her optimism is indomitable. One of her employees, before we recorded the interview, told me to “make sure everyone knows how awesome of a boss she is!” A statement that was genuine and not in an attempt to find favor with the boss.
It’s clear that it’s Skow’s passion that keeps the business going and growing. It’s refreshing to see a business that is built on service to those in need. When I asked her if her business has changed her philosophy on life at all, it became clear that she truly believes in her craft.
“I would say just my focus on service. I’ve always felt really good about what I’ve done, even in the court system. I think it’s a very important job, but just the fact that every second of what we do is so rewarding in that it’s serving someone.”
Access Resource will continue to help, serve, and illuminate the lives of those struggling with hearing deficiencies. And though it may not affect all of us now, if we do find ourselves with a hearing impairment at some point in our lives, we’ll be grateful that people like Karen and businesses like Access Resource are there to help.