Technology to support deaf learners
The number and range of technological options available to Deaf learners has significantly increased in recent years. I‘d like to state at the outset that the technologies described below are not ‘solutions’ but rather options which can be utilised to aid independence and increase engagement. They are not intended as a replacement for inclusive teaching and support practices.
Availability of automatic captioning could be seen as a direct outcome of the Covid pandemic. However, the technology has been available for a number of years, it is just now more visible and easier to access. If you haven’t used it before, try it in your next online meeting. Teams, Meet and Zoom all have the feature built in. Look for the CC symbol, dependent on your setup it may be hidden in the three dots menu. If you are teaching or presenting online, remind learners how to turn it on at the outset of the session.
When teaching face-to-face, auto captioning is still a possibility. Both PowerPoint and Google Slides will caption your speech and display this whilst in presentation mode. You can control the size, colour and position of the captions to suit learners’ preferences and your screen set-up. More sophisticated solutions such as Caption.Ed and Otter claim higher levels of accuracy and have additional features such as identification of individual speakers and the ability to upload custom vocabulary for more accurate transcription.
For accurate auto-captioning you need to cut out background noise and capture high quality audio. This means wearing a headset microphone which is not unusual online, though in the classroom you may need to embrace your inner Britney! Also be aware that anyone relying on captions will need you to repeat contributions made away from the microphone e.g. questions from other learners.
For more flexible learning such as group work and quick conversations, learners can use mobile solutions on a phone or tablet. Google’s Live Transcribe is a good choice on Android. There are a host of apps on the Apple Store but opening Notes and tapping the microphone symbol on the keyboard seems to work just as well. As with the other options clarity is key and a noisy corridor or playground will not result in great captioning.
Automatic captioning does have limitations and so should never be used when high levels of technical language are required or to share critical personal and health information.
It is worth noting that an internet connection is required for these services to work so good connectivity is critical.
Remote human captioning
Human captioners are more accurate than auto-captioning. There are many services which will provide captioning remotely, thereby lowering cost and enabling short sessions to be booked if required. These services use qualified stenographers or re-speakers such as used by courts or live television. The captions can be displayed on a classroom screen or provided to a learner’s individual device.
Additional benefits of captioning
With many accessiblity solutions it is not just the learner requiring it who can benefit. Same language captioning has been shown to improve reading and increase understanding for learners in their first language and for those who have English as a second language.
Remote BSL translation
As with captioning, remote BSL (British Sign Language) translation is provided by a number of companies. This obviously lends itself to online learning but has cost and convenience advantages for classroom sessions. Consideration must be given to the layout of a room as the interpreter will need to hear all speakers and be heard by them. As more bandwidth will be required for high-quality video it is important to test in advance of usage.
Specialist hearing technologies
A multitude of devices exist so hearing aid or cochlear implant users can hear taught content more clearly. Often called “FM Systems” these wireless devices ensure the teacher’s voice reaches the learner directly. However, these devices require careful setup to ensure the learner is getting the correct balance of voice and ambient sounds. Expert help should be sought for setup and the learner’s audiologist consulted as hearing aids and cochlear implants will need to be adjusted. For advice about such systems the National Deaf Children’s Society have a technology support service (despite the name they support up to age 25). Also for general advice Connevans have much expertise in-house and have long been my go-to company in this area.
Infrastructure is critical
Many of the technologies described above rely on good technology infrastructure to be successful. In short this generally means high speed internet connections and Wi-Fi coverage in all areas. Reliability is a key factor in whether use of assistive technologies is discontinued, so for these technologies it is hard to overstate the importance of good infrastructure.
A plea to developers
We have hopefully all seen lives enhanced and changed by technologies and as such can get excited when ‘ground-breaking’ or ‘transformational’ technologies appear. Without the involvement of Deaf people in the design process, devices and software can be developed which do not consider all the elements required for communication or to solve issues in inappropriate ways. Co-designing with Deaf people to value their lived experience will result in purposeful and human-centred technologies. RNID are actively supporting this concept with their Tech UX Lab which uses focus groups to review concepts and undertake hands on testing of technologies.
None of the technologies above, or those developed in the future will make a difference for learners unless they have buy-in and choice on how the technologies are used. A fine balance must be struck between introducing technology-based independence and ensuring learners are not left without the human support they may previously have relied on. A move toward independence through technology may be desirable for educational organisations, but the pace of change must be determined by the learner.
Fil McIntyre Biography
Manager and Assistive Technology Lead, TechAbility/Natspec
Bett Advisory Board member
Fil is passionate about the advantages the right technology can give to enhance life, learning and communication. He has provided training in assistive technology hardware and software to a wide range of professionals from schools, colleges, universities, charities and healthcare.
Fil moved to managing TechAbility full time in February 2021 after three years in a split role between TechAbility and Beaumont College in Lancaster. At Beaumont College, Fil was the Lead Assistive Technologist where he managed a team which assessed and supported students to gain maximum advantage from technology.
Prior to Beaumont College, as part of The BRITE Initiative, Fil delivered Assistive Technology training and support to every college in Scotland. He has also been part of the training team at Inclusive Technology and developed the first assistive technology post at Seashell Trust specialist school and college.