When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, power lines were destroyed and Internet access went down, leaving individuals with hearing loss without a way to stay informed and get help. An associate professor of psychology at Towson University was inspired to take action.
Ellyn Sheffield, PhD, began to talk with NPR about her desire to make radio accessible, like television had been for a long time. The discussions led to the creation of the International Center for Accessible Radio Technology (ICART), a partnership between NPR and Towson that began working to produce the first live-captioned radio program.
Dr. Sheffield, who was initially contacted by NPR for her skills as a cognitive psychologist, said this mission became personal for her because she knew a lot of people with hearing loss who wanted to listen to the radio.
“I was brought in to assist with the transition from analog to digital, so I already knew that it was going to be an ideal situation to carry over other messages,” said Dr. Sheffield, who codirects ICART with Mike Starling of NPR. “However, radio is different from television, where the captions are supplementary, so we needed to put together a system that would allow people to have complete comprehension.”
The live-captioning technology was first tested in NPR's coverage of the 2008 presidential election and then again during last year's presidential debates. The collaboration ultimately resulted in Latino USA becoming the first radio program to offer equal-access distribution through visual captioning on Feb. 22.
To create a live-captioned radio program, Towson students and voice writers listen to a live radio stream and continually re-speak everything they hear. That information is then fed into a computer program that turns it into text and formats the information to be transmitted as captions within 20 seconds of the broadcast.
Towson knew one resource it had was students, so it figured out a way for them to be captioners with minimal training in order to serve the millions of people who have hearing loss, Dr. Sheffield noted in a phone interview.
“People want it; they really just want it,” she said. “For a hard-of-hearing person who has grown up with radio, this is so significant. The deaf community is also excited, even though they didn't grow up listening to the radio. Personally, it's the end of a long journey because this is technology that should've been out a long time ago.”
Arlene Romoff, a former president of the Hearing Loss Association of New Jersey, has used captioning technology over the spectrum of hearing loss, as she gradually lost her hearing and then regained it with cochlear implants.
“This is finally enabling people with hearing loss to make use of the one device that, by definition, was so problematic for those of us with hearing loss,” Ms. Romoff said in an e-mail message.
“Captioning radio programming is an acknowledgement that, first, there is an entire segment of the population that couldn't use radios and, second, that what seemed like an insurmountable hurdle to make radios accessible for people with hearing loss could be accomplished.”
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