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April 5, 2005

A new era of understanding College helps deaf get real-time captioning by using new software

From: Waterbury Republican American - Waterbury,CT,USA - Apr 5, 2005

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

By Bryan Sundie

Copyright © 2005 Republican-American

WINSTED -- Northwestern Connecticut Community College student Beth Hoyer is comfortable with reading lips but has not mastered the intricacies of sign language and finds it difficult to follow along with classroom lectures.

Help could soon be on the way for Hoyer and other deaf students, as well as those who are hard of hearing: College officials are testing a computer-aided voice recognition system that would display lectures and discussions verbatim on projection screens.

"I can understand what is going on," Hoyer, 27, said Monday as professor Maureen Chalmers demonstrated Northwestern's new software called Caption Mic. It was developed by Middlebury-based ULTECH LLC. As others talked, Chalmers repeated their words into a muzzle-like microphone. Almost instantly the words were displayed in large, white text on a black computer screen.

Captioning is nothing new. Press a button on your remote control and watch words pop up on the television screen. But that text is derived from a script; Caption Mic provides real-time reports. And this has applications outside the classroom -- town meetings, perhaps. Connecticut Network, the state's public affairs channel, just finished a pilot program, using the system during legislative events this year.

"It opens up the window we offer into state government," communications director Bill Bevacqua said.

Monday's demonstration in Winsted was just a seed. Chalmers, and others, want it to grow into a full-fledged program with trained staff providing live captioning throughout Northwestern's classrooms. That could happen down the road, but college officials have focused their efforts on training people to use this state-of-the-art software.

Northwestern in May will offer instruction for voice captioning through three courses. The classes cost $199 each and students would have to buy software, a computer program similar to Caption Mic.

More live captioning would make a significant difference in deaf people's lives, said Mark J. Myers, director of Northwestern's Collegiate Education for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program.

Captioning on Connecticut-based news reports comes from scripts, and if a weatherman reports live from the field his words are not included in the transmission, Myers said.

"We had a student at the college who saw a little cloud on the weather map," said Chalmers, explaining the possibility of black ice on roads was mentioned during a television report this winter. The station's script captioning didn't provide that tidbit.

"My student totaled his car," Chalmers said. "He could have been severely hurt."

Because of lobbying by a coalition of deaf people, Connecticut-based television networks agreed to use live captioning during all emergency reports, Myers said. That started April 1. By Jan. 6, all televised news reports in the state must use live captioning under mandate from the Federal Communications Commission, he said.

Myers, also deaf, secured a computer and software for the college through a grant from the Torrington Area Foundation for Public Giving. He believes strongly in the system and said Northwestern is leading the charge in Connecticut.

Myers lauded Connecticut Network for its efforts. He recalled a recent trip to his health club, where he watched a legislative session along with others in the room.

The words on the screen were no big deal for them, but for Myers it signaled progress.

"I felt like I had full access," he said.

For information about Northwestern's new courses, call its Continuing and Extended Studies department at (860) 738-6444.

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