Professor Creates Closed Captioning Radio Service for the Deaf


The Deaf Studies program is the reason senior Rachel Wirtz chose Towson. Wirtz said she believes in equal access for everyone, despite disabilities, and said Towson has been working to provide this.

One example is associate professor Ellyn Sheffield’s collaboration with NPR to start a new radio captioning technology. She, and NPR’s Mike Starling, are co-directors of the University’s International Center for Accessible Radio Technology(ICART).

The first radio program to use the equal access distribution technology was Latino USA Feb. 22.

Broadcasting on more than 100 public radio stations, captioned-radio public media broadcasts allow access to radio to a target audience of nearly seven million people in the United States who are deaf and hard of hearing. ICART started developing the program in 2007.

Deaf Studies Major Michaela Nesmith said she never heard of radio captions until recently but thinks it will be useful.

“I think it’s cool they’re using other media other than just TV,” she said. “”It’s pretty cool that they’re reaching out to do that.”

The broadcast represents a breakthrough six years in the making, as ICART developed the use of cutting-edge digital HD Radio(tm) technology to allow radio to migrate to digital transmission.

“Through this accessible radio initiative, a small amount of the total data capacity will be used to carry textual data that will be shown live on a screen on new versions of HD Radio receivers, essentially providing a closed-caption transcript of live broadcasts for people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” according to the National Center for Accessible Media.

This technology was first tested in NPR’s coverage of the 2008 presidential election, and popularly received by members of the deaf community.

Jody Cripps of Towson University’s Department of Audiology, Speech-Language Pathology and Deaf Studies, sat in on one of these broadcasts.

Surveys of 150 people who are deaf or hard of hearing, taken during the 2008 broadcast, indicated over 70 percent of positive feedback to this new technology, according to a 2008 news release by the National Center for Accessible Media.

“I did sit through a 2008 closed-captioning screening and remember sitting there reading it and it was too intense,” Cripps said. “You have to read it before it’s gone. You have to read it as it goes. For me that’s hard and I prefer to have it signed. The interpreter can incorporate paralinguistic content for what’s being said just by signing.”
Feedback from professionals such as Cripps helps guide the future of this new technology and increase accessibility for various subgroups of the deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind communities.

“I think that the program is a good movement for some deaf people who lose their hearing abilities at later age and [have] English as their first language,” Cripps said, but for those born deaf, “Research shows that average deaf people are at a fourth grade writing and reading level in English when graduating high school. Their ability to read emergency announcements may be limited and it may cause misunderstandings due to reading issues.”

The Deaf Studies program at Towson has gained more popularity in recent years, Wirtz said, and she said she is proud to be a part of the program because she feels many people don’t have a well-rounded knowledge of the deaf culture.

“It makes me proud to know I was a part of the program,” she said. “It’s also nice to know that our professors here are working on bringing the same accessibility to those who can’t hear,” she said.

Listeners can tune into the new Captioned Radio broadcast on any web browser using the URL

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