American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

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Call the Next Witness!

by Kayde Rieken

Kayde Rieken relaxes in a rocking chair. From the Editor: In every courtroom, attention focuses on the lawyers, the witnesses, and the judge who will hand down the final decision. At each trial, however, another professional is quietly and diligently at work. In this article Kayde Rieken (Kayde is pronounced Kadie) describes her training and her work as a court reporter, a profession in which blindness is no obstacle.

I've been totally blind since birth, and I have an older sister who is fully sighted. I was extremely fortunate, as my parents expected me to do everything my sister was doing. Both of us explored and roughhoused and did household chores. My parents assumed that I would attend public school and keep up with my sighted classmates.

We lived in Missouri when I was born, and my parents enrolled me in a preschool for blind children in Kansas City. They were dismayed when the teachers told them I was too young to start learning Braille. My sister learned print letters before she entered kindergarten, and my parents thought I ought to be given the same early exposure to Braille, which was going to be my means to become literate.

My family moved several times during my early years. When I started kindergarten we lived in Nebraska, and later we moved to Colorado. Finally, when I was in fourth grade, we settled in Kearny, Nebraska, where we lived until I finished high school.

I had studied Spanish in high school, and I thought I would like to become a Spanish interpreter. I enrolled at Nebraska Wesleyan in Lincoln, a school that offered Spanish interpreting as a major. After two years, though, I realized that the field was not a good fit for me. I was excited when I learned about the field of court reporting. I enrolled in an online program, the College of Court Reporting, based in Hobart, Indiana, which granted an associate’s degree.

The school was very cooperative in terms of accessibility. They made sure that I could use all of the necessary hardware and software. I completed my training in 2017 and started looking for a job.

Listening is a critical skill for a court reporter. In fact, all through training, as we learn to use the steno machines, I heard instructors tell my classmates, "Don't look at your hands!" I knew that my blindness would never hinder me from doing quality work.

Nevertheless, after I completed my training it took me nine months to find a job. I attended one virtual interview after another. The interviewers were always enthusiastic until I disclosed that I am blind. Then the tone of the conversation shifted abruptly, as though a deep chill had descended. My résumé included my involvement with the National Federation of the Blind, but apparently, it never occurred to the interviewers that I am a blind person myself.

Finally I had a phone interview with a company that provides court reporters for courts in Minneapolis. When I told the interviewer that I am blind there was a short pause, and then we continued as before. A few days later I was called for a follow-up interview to talk about the accommodations I would need. I received a job offer while I was at the 2018 National Federation of the Blind Convention. It was wonderful to celebrate my fantastic news with my Federation family!

I belong to a team of court reporters employed by the 4th District, which is Hennepin County, Minnesota. We're assigned to trials in various courthouses throughout the county. Our assignments are based on how many hours we have worked recently. The work is very demanding, and spreading out our assignments helps ensure that people don't get burned out.

When I record courtroom proceedings, speed is of the essence! I'm responsible for creating a flawlessly accurate record, capturing every word that is spoken throughout the trial. To perform my job I use a standard steno machine. Steno is a phonetic written language. Steno machines have twenty-two or twenty-four keys. I type using both hands simultaneously. I type the first part of a word with the fingers of my left hand, the end of the word with the fingers of my right hand, and the middle of the word with my thumbs.
The steno machine has a built-in English dictionary. Everything I type is automatically translated into written English that appears on the screen of my laptop computer. I have a Braille display connected to my laptop, so I can read back my work in Braille. If I weren't fluent in Braille, I can't imagine how I would do my job!

The program I use for editing my work has a few quirks that can be a bit of a challenge. As of today it doesn't work with Windows 11. It works well with Windows 10, so I'll still be able to use it for a while, but eventually I'll have to make changes.

When you deal with technology, glitches can always occur. Once my steno machine suddenly stopped communicating with my laptop. Fortunately I caught the problem right away, and I managed to troubleshoot it during our lunch break. Another issue I have to watch for is formatting. Now and then I have someone check my documents to make certain everything is set up properly.

If I'm not sure I understood a word or phrase during a trial, I ask the person to repeat what they said. I have taken a couple of courses on linguistics to help me recognize and understand the many accents and speech patterns I hear. Right now I'm studying the speech patterns and usage heard in many African-American communities. A simple misunderstanding could affect the way a phrase or sentence appears in the transcript.

A trial may last several days or more. Each trial generates many pages of transcript. One hour of a trial amounts to about forty transcribed pages. Outside the courtroom I meticulously proofread my work. In an hour I usually can proofread about twenty-five pages, but if the trial is dense with technical language I might only be able to proofread fifteen pages or so. I have to double and even triple check all of the complicated names and terms that are used. Every so often a lawyer demands to see the full transcript on the following day, but that just isn't possible!

Eventually artificial intelligence may take over some aspects of the work I do. However, with all of the different voice tones and accents, plus the complicated terms that are used in many trials, I think the need for human court reporters will be with us for a long time.

Early during the COVID shutdown, the courthouses closed, and trials were conducted over Zoom. Now the courts are open again, and I do all of my work in person. Everyone knows that I am blind. People see me come in with my guide dog or my cane, and they watch me read from my Braille display. Almost universally people have been very welcoming and respectful. If anyone objects to having a blind court reporter, I haven't heard about it.

One challenge I encounter now and then as a blind court reporter is keeping track of who is speaking, especially if things get heated and people interrupt or talk over one another. For the record I need to be absolutely certain of each speaker's identity. If I have any doubts, I ask the judge to make sure people identify themselves when they speak. If I'm not sure I understood a word or phrase, I ask the person to repeat what they said.

The field of court reporting is not for everyone. The work is highly demanding and stressful. A simple mistake could change the meaning of a statement, and that tiny change could affect the outcome of a trial. Creating a meticulously accurate record is an enormous responsibility.

Court reporting can be stressful in another way as well. It is painful, even excruciating, to hear the gruesome details of murders, rapes, and child abuse that are revealed in so many trials. Once I spent a whole day on proceedings around adoption cases, and everyone in the room was happy! It was such a contrast to the cases I've grown used to! Regardless of the emotion stirred up by the testimony, as a court reporter I have to remain calm and record every word that is spoken.

The stresses I'm describing affect all court reporters, blind or sighted. I definitely think that court reporting is a good field for blind people to consider. For me Braille is an essential tool, but it may be possible for a blind person to use speech output instead.

Regrettably, the Indiana School of Court Reporting, where I earned my degree, has made some changes in technology. Its courses are no longer accessible for blind students. Currently some blind students are successfully enrolled at a school called Simply Steno. When investigating a school it is essential to make sure the technology will be accessible throughout the program.

Success in court reporting depends on practice, practice, and more practice. Court reporting programs require students to achieve a speed of 225 words per minute in order to graduate.

If you're considering the field of court reporting for yourself or for a student, please feel free to contact me. You can reach me at [email protected].

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