Editor's Note: This is Part 2 in a series of stories about the work of stenographers. Part 1 dealt with the connections between stenography and social justice.
If you are among the 9 percent of Portlanders who have lost jobs in the past year, and you’ve given up waiting for the next federal stimulus check to roll in, there’s a line of work you might consider: Stenography.
If you’ve ever been in court, you may have seen a live stenographer: they sit off to the side in front of something called a steno machine, that looks like what you’d get if a typewriter and a cash register had a baby. Sometimes they get up and wander around with the machine. They are recording every word spoken in the trial, in real time. They do this using a system called stenography, which lets them press a combination of keys simultaneously to produce a word, a phrase, or even a paragraph or more of text at one stroke.
Even before the pandemic, stenographers were in growing demand outside courtrooms, too. Stumptown Steno provides legal services like courtroom or deposition reporting, but also "Life History Documentation," in which a Stumptown Stenographer will meet you and your loved one at a location of your choice to hear their life story and create a written, verbatim record.
Stumptown Steno recorders also provide CART services: Communication Access Realtime Translation. This is the certification required by Designated Interpreters, a company that provides “specialized, high-level accommodation services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing medical professionals,” whose business manager says his company is in need of more captioners, and has trouble finding them, a need that’s only gotten more acute amidst the pandemic.
Aside from court reporting, stenographers also do captioning, including live captioning for TV, and, in soaring numbers since the pandemic hit, online classes, meetings, and doctors’ appointments involving people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
It is world-changing work. Stenography, whether in court or in captioning, is a high-octane, high-stakes job, and people who do it say they often cannot imagine doing anything else. You’re helping people; you’re constantly learning new things; you’re honing a powerful craft; you’re doing something that looks like voodoo to most people. If you want it to be, the work is flexible (and the money is great).
Thirteen years ago, if you wanted to try out stenography, you needed to enroll in a for-profit steno school, which required tuition, plus an up-front purchase of a steno machine and software (which, together, runs in the thousands of dollars). You got taught a lot of theory, and then you spent semester after semester hammering away at your speed, until you passed 225 words per minute, the requirement for court reporting certification. If you passed, OK; then you got a high-paying job and paid off your debt. But an estimated 85 percent of stenography students never get that fast. Those people? Out of luck, and out of money.
Mirabai Knight is one of the ones who did get up to court-reporting speed and graduate from stenography school, and quickly (she gives props to Portland-based Beeminder for helping her stay focused). She’s now a successful realtime captioner for the Deaf and hard of hearing, and captions Portland’s monthly Donut.js meetup. She says she loves stenography, the beauty and power of the system, and the work it lets her do. “The good name of steno,” she writes, “is being spoiled by the exploitative for-profit steno school system.” She thinks steno ought to be like most musical instruments, with large numbers of amateurs, and a few who rise to professional status.
That is why she founded OpenSteno, which aims to lower the cost of entry for stenography. First, OpenSteno replaced expensive proprietary software with free, open-source software called Plover. Knight hired Josh Lifton as their first developer for the project. Lifton now lives in Portland and runs CrowdSupply, a technology crowdfunding platform that resembles what would have happened if Edward Snowden had set out to make Kickstarter.
He’s also developing a plug-and-play steno keyboard that runs Plover on any computer over USB. It’s called the “Stenosaurus” and the current incarnation has an Apple-meets-Portland, bamboo-and-aluminum enclosure. And there’s support as you learn: free steno-learning software called Typey Type, and games like Steno Arcade, which let you practice your speed and accuracy on songs. If you want encouragement, camaraderie, or advice, the Plover community is strong, kind, generous, and active.