In the Deaf community, there’s a commonly used expression: “bridging the gap” — trying to make communication more accessible between deaf and hearing people. In the Deaf community, recent technology has been creating opportunities that make it easier to communicate with others. At RIT/NTID these technologies are being developed to improve communication and access for Deaf students.
The Department of Access Services (DAS) is one major portion of this movement that utilizes technology specifically to help students receive the information they need to succeed in their classes. One of the major technologies is C-Print, a captioning service that is offered to deaf and hard-of-hearing students on the RIT campus.
Mike Stinson is a current professor at NTID’s Research Program who developed the technology. According to him, C-Print had been built upon a shorthand writing method called Gregg Shorthand. You can recognize Gregg Shorthand in C-Print when a captionist spells out a word phonetically that the program converts to the fully spelled out word. A simple example that Stinson provided was the phonetic spelling of the word “welcome”, which is “WLKM”.
Steve Nelson, director of operations at Access Services, has seen other technologies proposed but doesn’t feel that they fit the needs of the classroom or are worth the costs. “We’re looking for the best way to provide services and the most cost-efficient way,” he says.“For all 33 years I’ve worked here, there’s been a continuing need for services. So it’s important for us to control costs while we provide the best services possible.”
Nelson also explained that introducing something like automatic speech recognition has been slow. “When first I started in interpreting some thirty years ago, people were predicting that automatic speech recognition would arrive in about five years. Now they’re saying two years, so we must be getting closer.”
However, Stinson says that a software application for C-Print on mobile phones and other portable devices will be available soon. This type of transition will help in classroom settings where students might need to move around.
Nelson described how notetaking, another service provided by DAS, has also changed as technology has improved. Notetaking used to be done by hand with paper and pencil, copied, and then distributed to students in hard copy format. But this method of distribution and note taking has changed with time and the increased use of technology. “Computer networks enabled us to move to a more cost-efficient strategy of scanning and distributing [notes] electronically. These scanned images were simply pictures of the note pages,” Nelson explains. “Now in many cases, students receive files they can search, edit and highlight in Microsoft Word. Many of our student notetakers type the class notes they take and directly upload those files for distribution.”
In addition to C-Print and digital notetaking, another technology — created by technology company Cisco Systems — is helping to bridge the communication gap both inside and outside of the classroom. Cisco Systems is hoping to work with RIT/NTID to improve some of their technologies for Deaf users. According to a 2011 NTID media relations article, a Cisco videoconferencing room was donated to RIT/NTID for their use and for their feedback. In this article, Cisco engineer Shraddha Chaplot stated, “We hope RIT/NTID will be able to find different solutions or recommendations to better assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
The technologies employed at DAS are making strides towards improving access but there is still a way to go. This is why another group called the NTID Center for Access Technology Innovation Lab (CAT lab), is working to improve and create new technologies to bridge the gap even more.
TECHNOLOGIES FOR THE FUTURE
There are currently a wide variety of projects being worked on by students and faculty at the CAT lab to improve access both inside and outside of the classroom setting.
Associate Professor at Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences Tom Oh and his research team recently received seed funding from the Effective Access Technology Program for their project: “Smart Cane Prototype for the Blind.” This project differs from other access technology because it focuses on increasing access for people who are both deaf and blind. Those who are blind can use walking sticks and their sense of hearing to navigate their way through the streets and other public areas. Some walking sticks even have sound feedback to increase the person’s awareness of their surroundings.
However, a person who is both deaf and blind may have a walking stick alone, making awareness of their surroundings harder to achieve and posing dangers to the individual’s safety. The smart cane would help this population to navigate more easily and more safely through the use of vibrations. For instance, if a person started to walk towards a wall or other obstacle on their right, the left side of the handle on the cane would vibrate, indicating that the person should shift directions and guiding them away from a potential collision.
“We do have a couple Deaf-Blind students here on campus,” says Gary Behm, director of the CAT Lab and an instructional/support member of the NTID Engineering Studies department. “We want to make sure that they are involved with our project because they are the ones that are going to use it.”
Another project for increased access within the classroom is the See-Thru, Life-Size Interactive Monitors (SLIM) Software Program. This project is aimed at bringing more information from a classroom setting to one central location; in this case, a screen. SLIM utilizes video conferencing technology to make a “transparent” screen from two monitors placed back to back that allow the person standing in front of one screen to see what or who is in front of the other.
In a classroom setting, students and professors could see each other through the use of these monitors while simultaneously sharing power points, pictures, documents, and/or websites on the same display. At the same time, the professor can write notes or draw diagrams directly on the screen that will be displayed for students to see on their screen. The SLIM screen also has the capacity to include captioning or any other software program, including video games.
The software is intended to addresses the problems that a traditional classroom setting might pose to a deaf or hard of hearing individual by providing one central focus point where the student and instructor can view all of the information needed.
This technology can be used within a classroom positioned between the professor and the students or for remote learning between a professor and student. The technology can also be utilized outside of the classroom and in the office for meetings, conferences and long distance communication.
A much simpler, but still necessary, technology being developed in the CAT lab is the C3 facemask: a clear facemask for use by doctors and other medical professionals. These professionals have to wear face masks to stop the spread of germs but these masks can make communication between the Deaf and hearing communities even more difficult. By covering half of the person’s face, these masks make it difficult to for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to read the lips and facial expressions of their doctors.
From the perspective of a deaf person, “When you go to the dentist and are having your teeth cleaned and they have a mask and they talk to you, then you can’t really understand what they are saying. Are they mad at you? Are they happy? Are they joking? You have no idea,” explains Behm. The medical professionals still have to wear facemasks for professional and sanitary reasons “but with the C3 facemask, you feel more comfortable working with them.”
Although the C3 facemask won’t fix all of the barriers in communication in a medical office, it makes it easier for deaf clients to see some visual clues about when their healthcare providers are talking to them and what tone the conversation is headed in.
Progress is being made here at RIT to help improve communication and access for all members of campus but the effort doesn’t stop there; plenty of companies are starting to take the needs of Deaf individuals into account when producing their technologies as well. For instance, Sony recently released their STW-C140GI Entertainment Access Glasses with Audio to movie theaters which project movie captioning right in front of the eyes of the person wearing them. Google has also made an effort to encourage communication between Deaf and hearing communities through the addition of their new interpreter app to Google hangouts. This app allows for a person’s view of their interpreter to be more prominent on the window, increasing ease of communication.
All of these new technological developments are making progress towards equal access and ease of communication but there is still a way to go. One of the main achievements of technology in recent years has been the increase in connectivity around the world. Now the CAT lab and others are working to increase connectivity between the Deaf and hearing communities in the same regions and campuses as well.