Monday, February 16, 2015

The Difference Between Hearing and Listening

Two interesting articles came out last week about accessibility issues in higher education, one nationally and one locally. In national news, the National Association of the Deaf is attempting a class-action lawsuit, filing two first against Harvard and MIT on lack of appropriate closed captioning of online videos or educational materials. In local news, the JTAC Sports News Editor Lura Rylant willingly gave up her ability to walk across campus for a one-day experience as a student who would have to use a wheelchair.

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

It's a philosophical question that came to mind as I started to compare these two articles. It's often thought that if a person does not make a complaint about being discriminated against, then no discrimination is taking place. Everything is good, right? But there is a difference between hearing (acknowledging the need for compliance) and listening (understanding and taking action towards creating a non-discriminatory environment).

The Sound of Change... and Challenges

The statement in the NY Times article that “much of Harvard’s online content is either not captioned or is inaccurately or unintelligibly captioned, making it inaccessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing” makes me suspect that the inaccurate or unintelligible captioning was done by automated captioning programs under the assumption that since YouTube and other services provide it, no inspection of the final resulting captions are needed. Comedians Rhett & Link bring this misconception into light in a series of videos:

The closed captioning article blew up my accessibility mailing lists through the weekend. Since the automated services are not accurate, manual transcribing and caption synchronizing is required, but many on the lists are concerned that closed captioning is time consuming. Here at Tarleton, Web Services timed the transcribing and captioning process. It took about 20 hours, with no other tasks assigned, to caption an hour's worth of sound effects and dialogue, but we still attempted to do it this way for a number of months. Meanwhile, we received numerous videos to post, and the task queue got severely backlogged. Some videos needed to be posted sooner than the time it took to caption them by our own staff and interns.

That's when we looked into outsourcing, as have other institutions, but that is still an expensive option. We are currently trialing different services just for videos that go through the official YouTube account managed by Marketing and Communications, but imagine expanding that price tag to all videos from all departments, including all current and archived videos? No one department, and likely entire university, would have the budget to handle that process, so accessibility coordinators are trying to find other options, including crowd sourcing, to speed up the captioning process.

The intention of these lawsuits is obviously to draw attention to the need for deaf and hard of hearing students to have the ability in the here and now to participate in their classes like their fellow classmates as well as ask a broader audience what we can do to improve this process. Everyone is hoping the federal government will provide some type(s) of guidance:
  • An education discount on transcribing services?
  • A reasonable time between posting and closed captioning in proportion to video length?
  • An increase in jobs for audio/video transcribers through government assistance?
We will keep an eye on the results of these lawsuits. In the meantime, we still need to do our best to get new videos closed captioned and audio files transcribed.

Putting Yourself in Another Person's Shoes

I have to extend a major kudos to Lura Rylant for attempting this major lifestyle change for even one day in order to observe, from her own perspective, the life and daily routine of a person with motor function disabilities. It requires a lot of courage to face this kind of challenge when you can easily get up out of the chair at any second and call it quits. Imagine how many people who cannot make that decision: any one of us could come out of an accident or a health issue with some kind of disability, and many veterans risk their lives and pay the price with a part, or parts, of their body. Disability holds no prejudice.

All universities strive to make their campuses accessible to all their students, faculty, staff, and visitors. As I mentioned in a past article on 50 Shades of Universal Design, not all accommodations, though well-intentioned, are designed universally accessible. In her opinion, some of the issues Rylant experienced with our accommodations may not have had her safety properly evaluated and planned. She also had some interesting concerns that Web Services would like to assist on such as adding accommodations to our maps, so people know where things like ramps and elevators are located. Adding accessible accommodations to our new interactive map was placed in Phase II of our campus map conversion, since Web Services doesn't have a list of these resources and would need help rounding them up across campus to add onto the online map.

One thing to note about these incidents and observations is that no one is trying to punish anyone for not being fully in compliance with accessibility standards and anti-discrimination laws. Many of the lawsuits involving ADA actually end in mitigation where all sides work together to resolve observable problems and initiate constructive guidelines for accessibility. These are problems and challenges that face a global community, and we don't all readily have the answers to each one.

While Lura Rylant has knowledge that will make her more sensitive and sympathetic to the issues affecting other people's lifestyles, we cannot educate everyone by placing them in wheelchairs, blindfolding them, or plugging their ears, so they understand the level of accessibility of the accommodations around them, physical or virtual. That is why we have federal standards (such as the past mentioned example 405 Ramps in Chapter 4: Accessible Routes of the ADA standards website) for architects and engineers to abide by when building physical accommodations. That is also why states like Texas require all state-funded universities and agencies to have accessibility coordinators. We act as liaisons and educators as we take notes on the issues concerning people with disabilities interacting with technology.

If you are an individual with a disability, Tarleton has avenues you can take through our disability services. Everyone has the right not only to be heard but to be listened to.