Braille Monitor               February 2024

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My Career Story

by Shelley Keeland

Shelley Keeland takes down the words of the court.From the Editor: Shelley Keeland wrote this in response to our request for information that we could use during Blind Equality Achievement Month. It arrived too late to appear in our October issue, but the story has tremendous value no matter when we run it.

When I was asked to share the story of my career and how it came to be, I thought about how important it is for me to talk about not only how I was able to achieve my dream, but also how important it is to have a support system along the way. I am totally blind, and I was a court reporter in juvenile court for twenty-eight years. I am the first and only blind person in Arkansas to become a court reporter and the second person in the United States. One woman before me was able to somehow find a way to read her steno shorthand notes and provide verbatim transcripts of court proceedings. My situation was different because I attended a school that taught not only the steno and the proper way to produce a transcript but also something we call computer-aided transcription. We type the shorthand on our steno machine and then transfer all of this information to a computer software program via Bluetooth, which translates most of that steno into English text right on your computer screen. The training for this career is so challenging because we must be certified to type 225 words per minute at 95 percent accuracy. As you can probably imagine, it is so hard to know when you enter a training program if you can ever achieve this level.

It’s not just about determination. It’s about whether your brain can work so quickly that you automatically take down everything you hear without having time to think about what you’re doing. In fact, if you start to think about whether you dropped a word and try to catch up, you lose your rhythm and become thrown off completely. The drop-out rate for court reporting students was somewhere around 95 percent, and they weren’t blind. I had no idea if I could make it through the training because there was no guarantee that I could ever write fast enough on the steno machine.

We also realized at the time I began the program that we didn’t have the Braille or speech technology to read any of the steno I was writing. Our goal was to use computers in the end, but students at the school had to type speed tests directly from their steno notes on a typewriter the old-fashioned way. I learned the steno shorthand and could comprehend it in my head, but I never saw what I wrote myself until I was almost ready to graduate from school. We eventually found the screen reader that could read both the English text and also any steno that did not translate in the computer program as English, but I couldn’t have made it through school without the help of my sighted friends. If another student decided they didn’t write well enough on a speed test to type it and turn it in for a grade, they would practice by reading my steno to me and typing it for me. We all learned the same shorthand theory, so they could just ask me to tell them what I meant when I had a misstroke.

I finally became certified in 1991 after nearly three years of hard work toward that end. Then I had the difficult task of trying to find work and break the barriers we all face when we have a disability because employers often don’t want to give us a chance. They either think we can’t do the job or they don’t want to spend the money to make the job accessible. I worked out the accessibility part with the help of Division of Services for the Blind here in Arkansas, so I just had to find a job. It took nearly two more years for that to happen. Finally, Judge Wiley Branton gave me the shot I needed. He was a newly appointed judge to the bench in 1993 and started building his staff from scratch. He hired me, and we were able to work together to make sure we had a solution to any unforeseen issues. I wasn’t following in the footsteps of another court reporter in that court, so we all started learning together.

Now that my career is mostly over, since my retirement in 2021, I still stop and wonder how this could happen. There seemed to be so many obstacles that it couldn’t work. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a good support system around you. This is also the month where we try to interest potential employers in learning about what we can do instead of what we can’t do. We recently lost Judge Branton, but he gave me so much when he decided to think outside the box and give me a chance. I hope this story can help others realize it is possible to achieve our dreams, but we can’t do it alone. It truly takes a team, a lot of courage and determination, and belief in yourself. My support group here in Arkansas is the National Federation of the Blind of Arkansas. Together we have built a family so that we can find strength in each other and work toward promoting change in the future to try to eliminate, not just for us, but for future generations, some of the barriers we have faced.

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