Captioning the Dalai Lama in North Fulton

Resident puts words to text

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ATLANTA – While many people were listening to the Dalai Lama when he visited Atlanta Oct. 8, Heidi Thomas of Roswell was concentrating on the people who could not listen. She did the captioning for the event.

A graduate of the Brown College of Court Reporting, Thomas was tasked with typing his words in near-real time for those who cannot hear, projecting them on screens during the event.

Thomas has made a career of captioning for all manner of speakers, from television stations to celebrities such as His Holiness, Jimmy Carter, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Walters and Meryl Streep.

Working in captioning for 25 years, Thomas said the trick is to have a dictionary beforehand of common or likely phrases her special typewriter can translate from shorthand into English.

“I have lots of experience listening to folks whose first language is not English,” Thomas said. “I have to be able to understand their accent.”

In preparation of the Dalai Lama’s visit, Thomas spent several days doing research.

“I will watch some videos of previous talks he has given,” Thomas said. “I have already sought information on an online captioners’ network and I have asked for feedback from my fellow captioners around the country who have captioned for him previously.”

Using his planned agenda and unique words he may use, Thomas creates a special “dictionary” that will turn her speedily typed shorthand into legible, full words.

Thomas began her career after taking an interest in the law.

“I didn’t want to be a lawyer but I was very interested in the legal field,” she said.

That led to studying court reporting at Brown College, which is a close cousin of closed captioning.

“They are similar in they involve writing on the shorthand machine,” she said. “They differ in that court reporters are to make a verbatim legal record. My task is to facilitate communication.”

Still keeping up with her court reporting, she was awarded the “Outstanding Court Reporter of the Year in Georgia” award for her work in training others in the field.

Many people who get captioned like to have fun with them, Thomas said. A common game to play in live performances is “stump the captioner,” where the speaker will say a large, unexpected word and see if the captioner will get it right.

For Thomas, the best time this happened was with environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr.

“He was presenting to a room of 2,000 people,” Thomas said. “He spoke about the ‘anadromous fish.’ He stopped after he said that and said, ‘let’s see how she did?’”

To her relief, Thomas spelled it correctly.