Sound Technology — For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Circa 2006

Jane, a 20-year-old English major at an Ivy-League university, has been deaf since early childhood. She loves reading the classic plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe—but she also wants to be able to participate in seminar classes where she can learn the perspectives of her professors and hearing peers.

At first, Jane’s college offered to provide a note-taker in her classes who could transcribe the classroom discussion and give her a written copy after the class ended. Jane pointed out, though, that this solution would still prevent her from participating in the class as it was going on.

Fortunately, these days there are many assistive technologies that can help Jane participate fully in her college classes, and can continue to assist her and other students who are deaf as they move from college to work. Due to increasing scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice, schools are beginning to take more seriously their obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide technologies allowing an equal educational experience for students with disabilities—technologies, for example, that provide communication in real time.

The following paragraphs describe some of the newer communication products for people with hearing loss, reviewed by writer Courtney Gale (who is deaf and is currently a communications major at Florida Atlantic University). Most of the products can be acquired either through easy payment plans or free through the state vocational rehabilitation center or the state Telecommunications Relay Service.

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C-PRINT

C-Print technology was developed by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, located at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. C-Print is a speech-totext access system that uses shorthand typing to condense text, while still including as much information as possible. C-Print captionists go through an online training session—in addition to a real-time face-to-face training program—to learn the C-Print abbreviation system and condensing strategies, as well as techniques for preparing real-time notes and using speech-recognition features to input text. After training, the captionists use C-Print Pro software (which is loaded onto a laptop or other portable device) to record classes, while the students they are assisting are able to read the text in real time as it appears in front of them, either on a linked laptop or a projection screen visible to all. Most often the captionist’s computer and student’s computer are linked wirelessly, although schools may also use local area network (LAN) cards for multiple students reading the captionist’s input text.

ICOMMUNICATOR

On the other end of the spectrum is the iCommunicator, a speech-recognition system available from PRP Inc. that requires no typist. Instead, the instructor speaks into a microphone, and the system uses Nuance Communications’ Dragon NaturallySpeaking software to automatically translate speech into text, sign language video or both.

In theory, the system is a very powerful tool. iCommunicator has bunches of buttons to fiddle with—the text’s color and size can be changed, and the signvideo translator can be speeded up or slowed down. Heck, the gadget even speaks. For the technologically savvy, it’s heaven on earth. But like any complex technology, the system requires a lot of homework and preparation before users can take advantage of it.

The biggest drawback of any speech recognition system—including iCommunicator—is that it can take a while to train, as the computer needs to learn the idiosyncrasies of each voice pattern. Unfortunately, this process can take an hour or more at times for each individual who will be speaking. Thus, every school year, all new instructors for the student in question would have to go through this programming, possibly multiple times as they teach the system through trial and error. The same would hold true in the work setting for every new businessperson pitching an idea.

Additionally, there is always at least one person who feels he or she must speak at the speed of light. Unless the software is loaded onto a powerful computer with a very fast processor, the system will end up lost (and so will the hard-of-hearing person using it).

Despite these possible issues to troubleshoot, iCommunicator offers the advantage of being run totally by the computer. It never gets sick or stuck in traffic, never finds itself daydreaming, and doesn’t fall prey to the inevitable limitations of human error. And slacking off is not in its 240,000-word dictionary.

EPSON POWERLITE 6100I MULTIMEDIA PROJECTOR

Remember the projector your parents used to show the family vacation slides on? This isn’t it. The PowerLite 6100i is a new projector sold by Epson. It boasts 3,500 ultra-bright ANSI (American National Standards Institute) lumens (lumens being a measurement of light intensity), a brightness that is perfect for projecting into large rooms or lecture halls. Additionally, the product uses Epson’s new 3LCD technology, which combines three different liquid crystal display panels to maximize a projected image, using an accurate color registration but still allowing room to adjust the colors if needed. The 6100i works with all computer systems, is networking-capable and is easily transportable.

Typical projectors can be very frustrating devices for the deaf or hard of hearing person, whether in the classroom or the boardroom. Images without explanations, no matter how clear the picture, are a hassle and can lose the viewer quickly unless he or she knows about the current project in detail. The 6100i solves this dilemma, as it also has captioning capabilities.

No, don’t hunt for your glasses—you read that correctly. This projector captions like a television, and no external decoder box is needed. So bring on the popcorn—if a movie is being shown in class (or an ad is being presented in the boardroom), no viewer with hearing loss will ever be excluded from the presentation if a 6100i is being used!

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POCKET SPEAK AND READ VOICE CARRY OVER (PVCO)

This product, first profiled by Krown Manufacturing, isn’t exactly new, but it is so helpful that it’s worth including in any discussion of communication technologies.

Standard Voice Carry Over (VCO) telephones have both a handset for speaking and an LCD screen for receiving text, and are used for telephone calls placed through the state Telecommunications Relay Service. These phones allow people who are deaf or hard of hearing—and who also have clear, understandable speech—to speak over the telephone using their own voices, and then receive a text response over the phone’s LCD screen. Users who are deaf first dial the Relay Service, where a communication assistant serves as their ears. The hard-of-hearing individual speaks directly to the other party through the handset, and the communication assistant types the listener’s response. (Each party signals the other person to begin speaking by saying, “Go ahead”—somewhat akin to “Over” on a walkie-talkie.)

VCO phones provide a valuable way for people who are deaf to communicate over the phone with the hearing world. But what if you run out of gas and need your VCO phone away from home? What do you do when the only telephone available is a standard pay phone?

Never fear, as long as you carry a Pocket Voice Carry Over (PVCO), which can be attached to any phone handset, turning virtually any telephone into a Voice Carry Over with a quick stick of the PVCO’s velcro. Simply call the Relay Service (a toll-free call, so pocket that quarter) and proceed as you would with any other VCO call. The PVCO is even compatible with cell phones, and can be life-saving. Literally.

The only setback? Although the PVCO comes with a large two-line display and a backlight for dark environments, the text can be hard to read at times because the captionist must shorten responses to fit on a small, portable screen. At times, the text can come out as gibberish, and learning to read shorthand is advisable.

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CAPTEL

Sing praises about this marvelous phone all day, because the CapTel (manufactured by Ultratec) deserves it. Like the VCO or a TTY, it’s a captioned telephone with the written text appearing on a bright, built-in monitor. The difference? There’s no middle-man. Oh sure, there are still operators doing the captioning for the deaf or hard-of-hearing user, but their presence is silent. They no longer have to announce themselves or interfere with the call in any way—you may even forget they are there. In other words, it’s all you, Baby!

Users can place their calls directly to the other party, just as with any standard phone, without having to first dial the state Relay center. Calls are routed automatically to the CapTel Captioning Service, so there’s no need to memorize any 1-800 numbers. In this way, the CapTel allows callers to dial extensions on their own and place calls more naturally without the “Go ahead.”

Another benefit is that the CapTel Captioning Service incorporates the latest voice-recognition technology, so captions are displayed exactly word-for-word almost simultaneous with the spoken responses. This feature is ideal for users with some hearing, who are then able to listen and read at the same time. (CapTel has a built-in amplifier to facilitate this process, as well as other userfriendly features like enlarged numbers.)

All captioning service for CapTel is paid for by the state Relay Service under Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some optional telephone features are additionally available at reasonable rates for users who subscribe—for example, this cool machine has caller ID capabilities.

The main disadvantage to the CapTel is that CapTel Captioning Service is not yet universally available. As of January, 2007, 39 states offer CapTel Captioning Service as part of their state Relay service.

by Courtney Gale

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