NPR For the Deaf: All People Considered

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The disabled community has often stated that making consumer electronics accessible to them is often an afterthought. In 2007, the blind rallied for accessible cell phones, and soon, a generation of more than 30 million baby boomers will face health problems such as hearing and vision impairments as they get older. While television has provided closed captioning services to the deaf for years, one medium that has fallen short in providing accessibility is radio.

This will soon change. During January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, National Public Radio (NPR) unveiled plans to offer the first radio service for the deaf and/or blind using HD radio services. The initiative includes a new research facility at Towson University’s International Center for Accessible Radio Technology (ICART) in Maryland.

Using special receivers, the deaf will be able to see transcripts on a special screen, much like television closed captions. The technology works in two tiers: An NPR announcer reads a program script in the original broadcast and a second person re-reads that script and records it.

Ellyn Sheffield, codirector of the ICART program, says developing the means to deliver the script to deaf subscribers comes with several challenges. "Captioning for TV is different," she explains. "In radio there is more speech, no visuals, and it’s a cognitive load that is different. If you listen to NPR, it’s an auditory novel, and if you just took the speech it would be pretty darn flat."

Sheffield’s team also had to take accuracy into account. Sheffield says an error rate of 2 percent may be acceptable to the deaf, but the current rate (10 percent to 15 percent) is not satisfactory.

In addition to the deaf, the initiative will also include new radio technology for blind listeners. While traditional radio worked well for them, the blind will face new challenges when using HD radio, which lacks the knobs and buttons they could memorize on traditional radio. Accessible HD radio will provide voice prompts and audible feedback, letting them know to which station they are tuned.

The first accessible HD radios will hit the market later this year or early next year. Though ICART will continue testing prototypes and additional technologies, Sheffield says her team is optimistic about the disabled community’s response.

"It will be interesting to see how the deaf community accepts radio for the deaf because they’ve never had it before," she says. "I think NPR will command the attention of the deaf community."

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