As Barack Obama became the first African American elected U.S. president on November 4, there was another history-making event involving the deaf and hard of hearing. National Public Radio in Washington hosted an election night party for the hard of hearing. They tested new technology that might one day provide nearly instantaneous captioning of radio broadcasts for those who can not listen. Paul Sisco reports.
A select group of hard of hearing people got their news from new radio technology on election night in the U.S..
An estimated 28 million Americans have difficulty hearing. Their troubles range from a small percentage who hear almost nothing to many who have developed hearing problems.
Advocates say most of those people could benefit from the new technology introduced in the studios of National Public Radio or NPR.
"They simply have no means of assessing what is on radio broadcasting," Senior engineer Jan Philip Andrews said. "Tonight we're presenting them an opportunity to hear radio by reading text."
Digital technology makes it all possible.
'From N.P.R. (National Public Radio) news this is live coverage of election night 2008...'
Invited guests watched captioned radio programming transmitted live on the radio band to specially equipped radio receivers that display the text on monitors and laptop computers.
The guests, like Cheryl Heffner, evaluated the technique for researchers. "I love it," she said. "It is so exciting. I can't wait to be able to use it."
Guests were also shown technology being developed for deaf passengers in cars. This is what a driver might see on the radio monitor. On that same monitor a deaf passenger could read the radio captioning.
The technology and captioning software is being developed at National Public Radio labs in Washington DC. It is directed by Michael Starling.
"NPR labs is in fact America's only not for profit broadcast lab for radio technology, and was really premised on the idea that with digital transmission there's now so many new things so many new public services we can do that will freshen radio and bring it into the 21st century," Starling said.
NPR's mission, through its 800 radio stations is to blanket the U.S. with news and cultural programming.
"Increasingly we've been asking ourselves if full national coverage mean more than just the signal reach. You know, aren't there some barriers here that perhaps people who have never had access to radio before that we can break down?" Starling asked.
Work continues at NPR Labs to improve and demonstrate that the technology exists to reach millions of deaf and hard of hearing citizens with radio captioning. The goal now is bring costs down and convince manufactures there is a lively market for it.