As one of the top 100 universities in the world, Michigan State University has something else to be proud of. Our historical leadership in accommodating deaf and hard-of-hearing students and staff continues to evolve through innovative partnerships and strategic investments.
Prior to the advent of technology, deaf individuals had to read lips or utilize American Sign Language and the help of an interpreter to communicate. Since the earliest days of the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, sign-language interpreters have served as translators, and their services were later complemented by real-time captioning. Virginia Martz, the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Specialist, is pleased about the progression that has occurred in the range and access of technology now available, even technology as simple as texting, to ease communication barriers. "The use and access to technology is rapidly changing, allowing deaf and hard-of-hearing students and employees greater access using mainstream devices," she explains.
Although the university's first full-time captioner was hired by the RCPD in 1997, real-time captioning has existed on campus since 1995, when one professor emeritus used it to hear the questions asked by his students during lectures. Students requiring real-time captioning services are accompanied to class by a captioner, who transcribes the professor's lecture and other students' questions, allowing the student to almost instantaneously read the information from their screen. Today, three captioners work together to caption anything from courses to telephone conferences, staff meetings, and even dissertations for students and faculty members with a range of hearing loss.
Consistent determination to excel has allowed the university to move forward, first by successfully upgrading classroom technologies. Recent investments on the part of Academic Technology Services have ensured that classrooms are equipped with adequate wireless internet and carts with a variety of technological features, including FM microphone technologies which transmit sounds. Departments looking to enhance classroom accessibility may receive funding for projects or technologies through the Teaching Learning Environment fund, part of MSU's annual appropriation from the State of Michigan. Furthermore, the establishment of Communities for Advising, Facilitating, and Enabling (CAFÉs) within the Libraries, Computing, and Technology Department provides a way to channel specific concerns through a group with shared interests. The Accommodating Technology CAFÉ provides a direct outlet for the concerns of RCPD, allowing us to adequately meet the needs of students and faculty who are hard-of-hearing.
Better sound systems and technological capabilities have invited significant innovation in the field of real-time captioning. In fall of 2009, the RCPD began using Skype, a messaging program which allows users to communicate by video, phone, or instant message with anyone around the world, as a way to remotely communicate with students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing to convey classroom lectures.
When Skype is utilized, a phone call between the captioner and the student's computer occurs, and a wireless microphone worn by the professor and connected to the technology cart in the classroom, relays the lecture and student questions via radio waves. The sound is then transmitted from the technology cart to the student's computer, and from the student's computer to the captioner, who is wearing a headset and sharing the student's desktop.
For students concerned about how other students perceive them, this technological progression represents a way to increase their independence. Otherwise, jokes Information Technologist Al Puzzuoli, it could have been "socially awkward to have someone next to you that looks like your mother visiting your class...This has also probably helped to improve students' self-images." Karen Calhoun, one of RCPD's three real-time captioners agrees. She recalls sitting in the back of a classroom where one student was enviously asked "where they had obtained such an accurate voice dictation program!" Though not feasible in every circumstance or preferred by every student, the ability to offer this service also allows captioners to increase their efficiency, since they are less incumbered by the need to traverse campus.
This determination to provide our students the latest technology will also help MSU help other universities. "I am pleased that our staff expertise has combined with strategic investments in technology to bring new flexibility to our classroom services. We are poised for even more advancement and may soon help other programs who cannot find or afford staff captioners gain these services in a cost-effective manner," reports Director Michael Hudson. Plans are underway to initiate a remote real-time captioning service with universities lacking captioners and looking to address unmet needs for students or staff with hearing impairments.
As the only university in the state to employ its own real-time captioners, Michigan State University was already ahead of its competition in accommodating the hearing-impaired members of its academic community. The series of innovations and investments have allowed the university to simultaneously meet the needs of its students ad maintain leadership, while helping others along the way.