I Can SEE What You Hear

I Can SEE What You Hear

A WSD Workshop

This Western Symposium on Deafness (WSD) workshop provided a nice overview of the various technologies that are provide communications access for people with hearing loss. The three main discussion areas were Classroom Access, Communication Technologies, and Signaling Devices. The workshop was presented by Pat Billies and Dr. Marcia Kolvitz.

Video Remote Interpreting

The first Classroom Access technology discussed was Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), which is a more efficient way (compared to traditional onsite interpreting) of providing interpreting services. It is especially effective in rural areas, where it is often impossible to get an on-site interpreter.

A VRI station can be set up anywhere that has access to a fast Internet connection. Required components include a web camera and microphone, a display screen and speaker, and software to allow this equipment to connect to the VRI service provider.

Note that firewalls may present a problem, that reading sign language from a screen might be much more difficult than reading it from a live, three-dimensional person, and that VRI may not be appropriate if there are several people involved in the discussion at either location.

Communications Access Realtime Translation

Another Classroom Access technology is Communications Access Realtime Translation (CART). This system is normally operated by a realtime captioner who uses a steno machine to record participants’ speech. The steno output is fed to a laptop computer, which converts the steno keystrokes to text, which can be viewed on the laptop screen (for one or two viewers) or projected onto a wall or screen (for three or more viewers.)

Note that voice recognition (VR) technology has started to encroach on traditional steno transcription, and the use of VR to provide CART services is likely to increase. To use VR technology the CART provider repeats what the speaker says into a microphone, which feeds her voice into a VR program running on a laptop, which converts it to text. Current systems require considerable training to a particular voice.

CART is often the accommodation of choice for late-deafened and oral deaf folks, and it is especially appropriate in classes with complex terminology. The CART provider can be on-site or remote. The absence of video vastly reduces the bandwidth requirement compared to VRI.

C-Print and TypeWell

CART is especially desirable, because a good CART operator can provide a word-for-word transcript of the spoken message. On the other hand, systems like C-Print (www.ntid.rit.edu/cprint) and TypeWell (www.typewell.com) provide a meaning-for-meaning transcript. These systems are operated by fast typists who record the spoken message using a laptop computer. Special software allows operators to use macros to increase their word production rates, but they are still not able to provide a word-for-word transcription.

College administrators prefer these systems to CART, because salaries paid to a C-Print or Typewell operator are a fraction of those paid to a CART operator. And they argue that in many classes a word-for-word transcript is not required.

VR technology is making inroads into C-Print and TypeWell systems, just as it is into CART systems. The text output of all three systems can be displayed on a laptop screen or projected onto a wall or large screen. All systems can also be operated remotely, so that the operator does not need to travel to the client’s location.

Voice Recognition

An interesting adaptation of VR technology is to have an instructor train a VR system to his voice, so that a separate person to caption the lesson is not required. The presenters refer to this system as the Liberated Learning Initiative. I’ve used this approach to teach computer skills to people with hearing loss, and I found it to be remarkably effective. Because I was monitoring the resulting captioning I was able to watch for critical errors and correct them, while letting unimportant errors go.


Another recent application of captioning is for webcasts. Sadly very few webcasts of general interest are captioned, but the technology is there for those who are interested in providing access to people with hearing loss. The ADEPT program at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock (www.ualr.edu/adept) incorporates this technology; it is critical to students with hearing loss, but also very well received within the general student population.

Video Captioning

There are a number of organizations that will caption your video for a fee, and there’s also a free tool that you can use to caption a video yourself. Developed by the folks at WGBH in Boston, MAGPie (http://ncam.wgbh.org/richmedia/tutorials/captioning.html) allows a person to add captions to any video in any of the common formats.

Internet Relay Services

The Internet relay services allow a person to place a text relay call without a TTY. Using just a browser on an Internet-connected computer, a person can call the relay service just as if he had a TTY. This really opens up the use of the relay service by those who rely on text calls, because they can place their call from any location that has an Internet-connected computer.

TTY Simulator

But suppose you want to place a TTY call to another TTY, rather than to a voice user through the relay service? This is also possible from any Internet-connected computer, but you’ll have to download the free software from NexTalk. But once you’ve done that, you can call TTY-to-TTY from any Internet-connected computer.

Captioned Telephone

One final piece of technology of special interest to members of the oral hearing loss (OHL) community is the Captioned Telephone (CapTel). As its name implies, it’s a telephone that has built-in captioning. A communications assistant using voice recognition technology is in the loop. She repeats everything the hearing person says into her VR software, which directs the resulting text to your CapTel phone. The delay is much shorter than with traditional relay, which contributes to a much more natural phone call.

Two-way Pagers

Two-way pagers take the place of a cell phone for those with hearing loss, because they provide wireless communications access from any location with coverage. Many of the newer devices incorporate many functions in addition to those of a traditional two-way pager; these include telephone, organizer, and relay access. The two most popular devices are the Blackberry and the T-Mobile Sidekick.

Face-to-face Communications

Two products are available to improve communications in situations where writing back and forth had been the standard method. The Interpretype system consists of two pre-programmed laptops that are connected with a cable. People sit at each of the laptops, and they type back and forth. The system cost is about $2000.

AlphaSmart is a less expensive system that costs about $300. It’s a single unit that consists of a keyboard and a small text display. The conversants pass the unit back and forth as they each type their comments.

Are these units better than pen and paper? For someone whose writing is so bad that he often can’t read it himself (like me 😉 they may make a lot of sense!

Signaling Devices

Appropriately installed visual smoke detectors are vital for people with hearing loss. They should be installed in common areas and bedrooms, and they MUST be wired into the standard alarm system. An individual visual smoke alarm installed in a bedroom is useful ONLY if there is smoke or fire in that room. If a fire is located on the floor above or below, or even down the hall a ways, the individual alarm will NOT go off when all the others do. So be sure to ask if the visual smoke detector is wired into the building’s alarm system.