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November 1, 2004

Software aids deaf students

From: Corvallis Gazette Times - Corvallis,OR,USA - Nov 1, 2004

TypeWell turns lectures, peer comments into computer text

By Theresa Hogue

Gazette-Times reporter

Four years ago, Jo Frederic, coordinator of services for the hearing-impaired at Oregon State University, was approached by a deaf student who had never learned sign language.

The student needed a way to understand a professor who might be too far away for lip-reading, as well as what was being said by other students during discussion periods. At first, Frederic investigated a computer system used by court stenographers to transcribe hearings into real-time text, but it proved too expensive. Finally, she came upon TypeWell, a software program that allowed a transcriber to use shortcuts for the most commonly used words in the English language, and with those shortcuts, to transcribe a professor's lecture onto a computer screen in real time.

TypeWell had a bigger dictionary than other programs Frederic investigated, making it more useful in a college setting. It also included an extensive training program, which prepped transcribers in the special program, teaching them to learn how to use the program's abbreviations and shortcuts to keep up with live discussions. OSU became the first university in Oregon to use the program, and the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities teamed up with the OSU technology access program to purchase computers for the program and to train users.

The process is fairly simple. A hearing, TypeWell-trained transcriber listens to a lecture and discussion and types it onto a laptop computer using TypeWell shortcuts. The deaf student, sitting nearby, reads the text as it appears on screen.

The text the student sees on the screen does not transcribe word for word what the professor is saying, Frederic explained, because it's impossible to keep up with the speed of human speech. Instead, it processes language and condenses it to a similar meaning using different words. However, professors who are shown the text afterward have been satisfied that meaning is not lost in the process and that students using TypeWell get essentially the same information as hearing students do. In fact, sometimes hearing-impaired students have an advantage, because they can save or print out a copy of the lecture after class.

The program is also helpful because it provides student voices, not just lecture notes.

"I've had students say, 'I never knew there were students making comments behind me,'" Frederic said.

Students reading the real-time text on their screens can also type in comments that the transcriptionist can then read out loud, allowing them to participate in discussions as well.

Frederic added that although the software is designed for hearing-impaired students, others have caught on to the advantages.

"When I was observing TypeWell use in a class one day, I noticed a cluster of students behind the transcriber," Frederic said. Those students were not hearing-impaired but were non-native English speakers, and seeing the words on screen helped them follow the lecture. She said some students who are in classes where the professor has a heavy accent also tend to want to see his words on screen. The program has so many uses that Frederic hopes one day it becomes part of universal classroom design.

TypeWell is now being used in school districts around the state, and Frederic has become the first person trained by TypeWell to be a TypeWell trainer not affiliated with the company. The training isn't easy because typists have to learn a whole other language of shortcuts when they use the program. For instance, the word "the" appears on the screen when the typist uses "j," an easily reached key on the board. Other commonly used words have their own key letters.

For Frederic, it's like learning another language. Transitioning between two languages is similar to transitioning between normal typing and using TypeWell. The process is so distinctive, there's even a term for it, Frederic said: "Bi-typal."

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