September 21, 2007

Technology Aids Hearing-Impaired Students at Cornell

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In order to ensure that deaf or hard of hearing students have equal access to auditory resources at Cornell, Student Disabilities Services (SDS) offers real-time captioning whenever the students go to classes, lectures or regular meetings of clubs.
Real-time captioning enables students with hearing impairments to “see” the content of a lecture. When the students are in class, they have their laptops wired to those of the captionists, who capture the lecture onto their laptops and simultaneously send the typed words to the students’ screens.
Cornell SDS has been offering captioning for nearly four years, and currently there are two students receiving this accommodation on campus. Although only a small number of students use the service, it is integral to their academic study.
“Captioning greatly enriches my understanding of the concepts taught in class. Without captioning, I would have tremendous difficulty comprehending what the professors are saying,” said Rebecca Herman ’11, one of the students who uses the service.
According to Michelle Fish, associate director of SDS, high technology makes life easier for students with hearing impairment.
Currently Cornell SDS provides two kinds of captioning: C-print and stenography. C-print is software installed in a regular computer. It can expand shorthand writing based on phonetic sounds into normal words. If the C-print captionist enters an abbreviation “xlnt,” it will automatically turn into “excellent” on the screen. Thus, the captionist can type faster and provide a complete transcript of the lecture. Similarly, a stenographic machine, which only has 22 keys, helps people type faster by reducing key strokes.
Another interesting fact about captioning technology is that the captionist does not have to be present with the students — remote captioning allows captioning from an outside location. If captionists happen to be unavailable on campus, SDS can call a captionist in Pennsylvania, Texas or even the U.K. to do the job immediately. Remote captioning is another option offered by SDS for hearing-impaired students.
In a classroom at Cornell, the instructor’s voice is conveyed from a microphone to the captionist’s location by audio files sent through a computer. The captionist then types down what has been heard and sends the printed information over the net to the computer of the student attending the lecture at Cornell.
“This is the first time in the four years that we haven’t used sign language interpreters because none of our students know American Sign Language,” Fish said.
Compared to ASL, real-time captioning allows for direct English translation, bypassing the need for translation from sign language to English.
The job of captionist is demanding.
Shura Gat, the sole captionist for Cornell SDS, works 12 to 13 hours in classrooms every week. Like a student, she spends a significant amount of time preparing for classes because she has to follow the lecture closely.
“Now I am captioning for a Greek mythology class. I have to familiarize myself with those terms and create abbreviations for them beforehand,” Gat said.
Captioning requires the ability to multi-task, as one captionist must both simultaneously listen and type a large amount.
According to Gat, for one 50-minute Asian Studies class, she typed 3,224 words.
To expand the coverage of captioning, SDS has employed a second captionist and is currently looking to hire more.
According to Fish, not only must the new captionists have solid typing skills and ability to think about words in a phonetic way, but also they should “be comfortable in a Cornell classroom and not afraid of new technology.”
Gat explained the many reasons for taking a captioning job, despite its difficulties.
“I like being in the classroom … I learn a variety of things and am exposed to a lot of new materials,” she said.
She also noted she enjoys building lasting relationships with the students she captions for.
When speaking of the significance of captioning, Fish and Gat both mentioned its value in equality of education.
“[The service] provides equal access and opportunity for people who have abilities to succeed. We will do our best to achieve this goal,” Fish said.
“I grew up in a family that valued education and I enjoyed my education,” Gat said. “I enjoy helping other people to have access to that opportunity.”