Participating in History While It Happens

The November 4th 2008 US election is considered historical, but do you know what else made history that day?

New Technology that can be used for Captioned Radio Broadcasts

For 6 months, Dr. Ellyn Sheffield, Towson University professor and NPR Labs researcher, asked people in the visually-impaired, hard of hearing, and geriatric communities what features they'd like to see in an HD Radio. Read about her project in "Accessible Radio Project Grows" published by Radio World, 12 February 2008.

First Ever Closed-Captioned HD Radio for the Deaf Launched By NPR, Harris, and Towson University

From the press release issued on 4 November 2008:

While millions of U.S. citizens voted in national and local elections last week, some of the nation's deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens were casting important votes on the future of captioned radio broadcasts– new technology designed to enable them to experience live radio coverage for the first time. The results– more than three-quarters of people who are deaf and hard of hearing indicated that they would be interested in purchasing captioned radio displays after watching live demonstrations of the technology last week at seven locations around the United States. The election night broadcast demonstrations were made possible by WGBH's Media Access Group, NPR, Harris Corporation and Towson University.

The event was coordinated by the International Center for Accessible Radio Technology (ICART) at Towson University. [See footnote 1.]

Why? Just glance at the "fast facts" on the ICART site:

  • Radio is the dominant mass medium, reaching 4.3 billion global listeners weekly
  • Three major digital radio systems are now in use in various countries around the world: HD Radio, Eureka DAB and Digital Radio Mondiale
  • The sensory disabled globally number 650 million
  • Including those sharing households and workplaces with the sensory disabled, it is estimated over 2 billion are affected by sensory disabilities
  • The 2007 Human Rights Convention "Rights of Persons With Disabilities" has been signed by 120 countries to date.

No wonder ICART likes to say "Accessible design is good universal design"!

The numbers for sensory disabilities in that list are emphasized by this author. If the number of people with sensory disabilities is not impressive, then read what captioned radio broadcasts mean to those who can benefit from them (from the press release):

'Being able to read the captions enabled me to stay current on the election results. I usually tune out the radio when it's on because it is difficult to understand the dialogue with my hearing loss,' said Betsy McCarthy, who participated in the demonstration at WGBH. 'This technology would allow me instant access to a broadcast as opposed to taking the extra time to obtain a transcript when one is available.'

Demonstration participants also showed a strong desire to rely upon captioned radio in emergency situations – on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being extremely important, they ranked emergency notifications at 9.6 when asked what types of information would be important to receive through captioned radio broadcasts. General news came in second at 8.0.

The public service station WGBH in Boston, Massachusetts has been working with accessible technologies in their Media Access Group for several decades.

The Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) is one part of WGBH's Media Access Group. NCAM is home to research and development that is "dedicated to the issues of media and information technology for people with disabilities in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities."

The work of NCAM, ICART, and others continues. Of course, election night was the first step. Tomorrow, January 20th, is another step.

These groups will provide captioning for the US presidential inauguration ceremony on January 20th as announced in NCAM's press release. The link to the site for the closed and live captioning is This is not a first, however. The first live television program that was made fully accessible for sensory disabilities was in 1993 for the inauguration of former US President Clinton.

Isn't it nice to have the choice of participating in history while it happens, rather than waiting for the text version at a later time, perhaps the next day when the news is slightly stale?

As the number of jobs decrease during financial crises, the numbers of people with sensory disabilities (or any disabilities) does not! Working with technology to make the world more accessible to everyone is another area for technical communicators to shine. Maybe you can develop your skills and expand your current job or strike out and find new frontiers to explore? Betsy McCarthy won't be the only one to thank you!

Legislation for People with Disabilities Left Out of Communications Technologies

Washington, DC, 20 June 2008—American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) Press Release

The Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT) is delighted that Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Heather Wilson (R-NM) have introduced "The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2008" (H.R. 6320). The bill would amend the Communications Act to ensure that new Internet-enabled telephone and television services are accessible to and usable by people with disabilities and closes existing gaps in telecommunications laws.