Opening the VA World to Everybody

This fall, I am interning with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The internship is completely online through the Virtual Student Federal Service program. I am part of the Digital Media Engagement team which produces all online content the VA produces. The entire DME team is composed of other interns.

I am currently serving on the Podcast Transcription team with my main responsibility being to transcribe episodes of the VA’s Borne the Battle podcast so they are accessible for disabled Veterans and other visitors. Recently, our group has been working way ahead of schedule. We finished transcribing all current episodes of Borne the Battle and have now been assigned other tasks such as proofreading YouTube’s subtitles on VA videos and writing blog posts across the VA’s platforms.

This position is part of the VA’s push to ensure that all of their media is Section 508 compliant. Section 508 is a mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services that instructs all federal agencies to make their web materials accessible to the disabled. In my case, the audience for these transcriptions would be the hearing impaired, though there are other reasons a transcript is beneficial. It gives listeners access to a text they can reference for any audio that was unclear or important details that are only mentioned briefly in the audio. Prior to this, I had no experience in Section 508 compliance.

Borne the Battle features some fascinating guests with rich stories about their service. One of the benefits of my work is that I’m constantly reminded to be grateful for the sacrifices our armed service members make for our safety. My brother is a Navy Veteran and I try to make a point of thanking Vets for their service, but working for the VA means daily reminders to be thankful.

Part of this gratitude means understanding that our Veterans need our help more than our “thank yous.” Many of the guests on Borne the Battle are advocating for programs or organizations (both outside the VA and inside) that provide a number of different services for Vets. Mental health services are a particular focus as they seem to be more confusing to Vets than other VA services. The podcast also features VA press releases announcing everything from new VA treatment options to VA meeting points to events that promote VA initiatives.

As the internship is completely online, I don’t have to work on the same days each week or even at the same time each day. Typically, I try to follow a general schedule and adapt when I need to. I like to start the week strong on Sunday by putting in a three-hour “shift.” Monday through Thursday I like to work 2 hours each day. These shorter sessions are easier to move around on my schedule and I can even move them to a Friday or Saturday morning if I need to.

The transcription process can be frustratingly slow at times. I don’t listen to the podcast episode before I start transcribing. As I’m working, I play the podcast at around a third of the normal speed. This slows the talking down enough that I can get through longer segments without needing to pause and catch. Even still, those “longer” segments are rarely more than ten seconds of full speed audio. Because of this, it takes around an hour to transcribe five minutes of audio. After I have finished the episode at the slower speed, I listen at full speed to double-check my work and make the necessary changes. This last step also involves converting my transcript to the Section 508 format. A full episode can take two weeks to transcribe depending on how fast the guests talk and how lively the conversation gets.

This internship has really opened my eyes to how much work goes into making government material accessible to everyone. This time-consuming work is done for every piece of media that the VA disseminates. No doubt the other major departments have their own teams for this purpose. The work has taught me to be more aware of how I communicate and think more about how others receive messages. I appreciate the reminder to be more inclusive in my speech and thought. It has also inspired me to study more linguistics as I have found the differences between spoken and written English to be fascinating.

You can learn more about the Virtual Student Federal Service program at vsfs.state.gov. You can learn about VA programs and listen to Borne the Battle at the VA’s website va.gov.


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