Monday, May 31, 2010

Hearing Sparks on Facebook

I've added a Facebook fan page for Hearing Sparks. Check it out here and "Like" it for regular updates from this blog in your Facebook stream.

This Memorial Day

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.
Walt Whitman - Dirge for Two Veterans

On this year's Memorial Day I want to thank all of those who have given their lives for this country, and those still living who have made sacrifices including the loss of their hearing, physical, and mental trauma. Thank you for all you do.

Source: the U.S. Army photostream on Flickr

Friday, May 28, 2010

Help An Organization, and Universal Subtitles

By the way, I got my genetic results from last night. I'm very excited to share some tidibits about what I've learned, so I'm working on a longer post and will post it when I have the chance. In the meantime check out this chance to help two worthy projects in one!

I wrote about the exciting project Universal Subtitles earlier this month. Well, according to their latest blog post, they are about to roll out a testing site, and they would like to know of any organizations that need captioning, subtitles, or translations for videos they already have up on the internet. They'd like to help out nonprofits, educational and social organizations. There are already some great suggestions in the comments, but if you have an idea, head over to their blog post on the subject to send them some suggestions.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

No More Silicone Molds... Hopefully

I really hate being fitted for new earmolds. That silicone stuff the audiologist pours in the ear always makes me itch and squirm, and then having to sit in the chair "chewing" for minutes at a time makes me feel ridiculous.

It's good, then, that the genius geeks at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have come up with a way to use 3D imaging techniques to take a better, more accurate and much more quick scan of people's earmolds. It involves using a kind of thin membrane that's inserted in the ear and filled with dye. A camera inside the membrane takes a snapshot of the ear canal.

This technology might not only help people with custom fitted ear molds. It could also help people understand more fully the way our ears flex and move with our bodies and lead to better-fitting earplugs and headphones.

The system has been patented and hopefully will show up on the market soon. My audiologist is pretty cutting-edge - I wonder when I'll see this in his office. I know I'll do a little dance of joy when I do, as long as the membrane doesn't itch!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

When is a Hearing Aid Not a Hearing Aid?

I remember when I was a kid, I used to see those omnipresent infomercials for cheap "hearing aids." They'd advertise in the back of my dad's Scientific American and in my grandparents' magazines. And they always confused me: how could they charge $29.95 for a pair of hearing aids when I had to go to a doctor and be fitted with very expensive hearing aids?

For awhile I figured these were just hearing aids for old people. It took some time before I realized these were not "hearing aids" at all. They existed merely to amplify sound. Perfect for people who don't want to spend the money or go to the doctor - people who simply do not know any better.

This article confirms a lot of what is obvious about these sound amplifiers. Not only are they generally of low quality, they can actually further damage in the ear by amplifying sounds too loudly. They're not medical instruments, and no audiologist has touched them or adjusted them for the individual. They don't have to meet the same FDA standards as a hearing aid, and they don't have an individual fit.

Currently the FDA is defining regulations for these "Personal Sound Amplification Products." But I think in the majority of cases, a properly fitted hearing instrument is the best investment for people looking for treatment for their hearing loss.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Can Angry Customers = Hearing Loss?

Worker's Compensation and disability benefits are generally no laughing matter, but I had to smile a bit when I saw this article today. It concerns an 18-year employee of National Fuel, which provides gas to New York and Pennsylvania. The employee filed a claim two years after retiring saying that she had suffered from long-term exposure to noise while on the job. The noise? Customers yelling in her ear as she answered phones all day long.

She won "in front of a Workers' Compensation Board — but that ruling was later overturned on appeal from the employer" because she didn't spend all day, every day on the phone listening to such severe levels of noise.

I smiled at this not because I want to belittle the person's suffering but because, well, sometimes it feels like I deal with yelling all day long, too. It just would never occur to me to blame something like hearing loss on it.

I was curious about the numbers behind the case. According to this article, a person speaking normally is about 45 decibels. Yelling is around 75. A sound needs to be around 85 decibels to cause permanent damage to hearing. I shudder to think of what it would be like to spend 8 hours a day listening to extremely loud yelling - good thing the majority of us do not have to.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Use the NATO Phonetic Alphabet for Greater Clarity

The NATO phonetic alphabet (or ICAO spelling alphabet) was finalized in 1956, developed so that individual letters and numbers can be easily understood over the radio. The history of this alphabet is really fascinating; it grew out of several military phonetic alphabets. However, it's not just useful for the military, or aviation. I think it could be really useful for communicating in day to day life since I have trouble distinguishing individual letters when someone is spelling something to me.

Scotty had the idea to start using the NATO phonetic alphabet after I expressed my frustration with constantly getting the letters in a game's serial number wrong. He was reading them off to me and naturally I kept mixing up certain letters. S and X, M and N, and many others that can be tricky to differentiate. He made up a sign that listed the NATO phonetic alphabet and put it between our computer desks. Now when we need to spell something out to each other, which happens for computer game serial numbers, web addresses, etc., we can refer to the list (or try to memorize it - I'm getting better, but I'm not quite there).

Note: Scotty does know how to fingerspell in American Sign Language, but verbal communication is easier when I'm looking at a computer screen trying to type what he's spelling as he spells it.

I can think of lots of ways the phonetic alphabet could help me with other people. Lots of people spell things to me on a daily basis, and if they knew the alphabet, things would go much more smoothly. But considering the logistical nightmare that it would be to try to explain it to people and get them to use it, I think I might keep it just in the family for now.

Here is a PDF of the sign Scotty made for us, and the alphabet is listed below.

Friday, May 21, 2010

You're Hearing Even When You're Only Seeing

According to a study in Nature Neuroscience, referenced here in the transcript of a podcast by 60-Second Science, when you only see an event happen, like a bird calling or a glass shattering, your brain's auditory cortex still processes it as though you heard it. The test put people in an MRI and studied their minds as they were shown silent videos. Their auditory cortexes activated when they watched them, even though there was no sound, and it even categorized them - "the patterns of activity that represent a howling dog and a chainsaw were distinct."

While I was looking for more information on this study, I found this 2001 PDF of a study done on deaf and hearing individuals. According to the study, deaf people already respond to visual stimuli in the auditory cortex, even if it's not a visual where sound would normally accompany it.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Weigh In: Dealing with Hearing Aids in Noisy Places

One of my readers wrote in to ask some advice. He'd like to know if anyone has any tips for dealing with noisy places while wearing a hearing aid, and is wondering if the servers at the restaurant would be confused or annoyed if he wrote things down.

Noisy restaurants are one of those things that is very problematic for me. There are so many things that can cause difficulty hearing in a restaurant: other customers talking, background music, sounds from the kitchen (especially beeping machinery), traffic outside, servers communicating with customers, and many other problems. But of course, visiting a restaurant with friends and family is just one of those things in life that few people want to give up - it's fun and relaxing.

As someone working in a service industry (though not a restaurant), I can tell you that the people helping you are there to do just that, help you out. Both of you want to communicate as effectively as possible, and I can't see a server objecting to anyone writing things down to ensure better communication. Sure, they may be surprised or caught off-guard if you whip out a notebook and start writing, but most people will catch on. There are several people who visit the library I work at regularly who cannot communicate verbally for a multitude of reasons. It is never a difficulty to help them.

Here are a few tips I've found in years of visiting restaurants. Please share your own ideas for J. in the comments, and thank you for your input!

Sit at a round table.
Sitting at a circular table rather than a rectangular or square one means you'll have better line-of-sight with your dining companions, to read their lips and see their expressions.

Sit with your back to a wall. 
It's much easier for me when I'm against a wall, with sound coming mostly from in front of me, than when I'm in the middle of a room, surrounded on all sides by noise. If possible, get a table up against a wall - if not, sit with your back to the quietest area of the room.

Anticipate the server.
This is one of those "survival tricks" I use often. Take a look at the menu. If the restaurant offers an option of side choices with the entree, you can expect the server will ask you what you want on the side, and you can listen for that question. If you look at the drink choices, you'll know if there's several options for iced tea available, and anticipate that the server will ask which you would like. Knowing the questions that are about to come up means you'll know what to listen for.
Check the settings on your hearing aid.
I've written before on my blog about a setting my audiologist put in my hearing aid for me. If I activate this program, the sound to my left, right, and behind me fades away while sound in front of me is amplified. This is very nice when I need to hear people in front of me but background sound is unimportant. If possible, talk to your audiologist about a similar program for your hearing aid.

Don't be afraid to move.
If you explain your situation to a server or the restaurant manager, they will almost always be happy to accommodate you. They are there to make money, and they don't want to lose it - plus they want to see people happy. If you see that there's another table that would be much easier for you, just ask.

Ask to turn the music down.
This may not make you the most popular person in the restaurant - or maybe the other customers are annoyed by the music, too, and you may just become the person of the hour for making your request of the staff. Quiet music leads to quieter people, and everyone becomes more aware of how loud they are being. Again, don't be afraid to ask.

I know everyone must have more tips! Let me and other readers know in the comments. If you have a question or need advice, don't hesitate to email me at hearing sparks at gmail dot com. I'll try my best to help and post it on this blog for more advice.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Two and Seven Years

Two years ago on the 17th, my husband and I were married. We had been together five years at that point, and the 25th of this month will mark seven years together. Don't worry, I'm not going to fill this post with anything too sappy. Instead, reflecting on these anniversaries makes me think about what it is like being with a hearing partner. Specifically my hearing partner.

Scotty's entire family is hearing. Before me met me, he didn't know anyone with a hearing loss. I don't actually remember telling him about my hearing aids. We met in high school, when I was a junior, just about to turn 17, and he was a senior, already 18. We were assigned to work together on the same project. (I went to a typical public school, and was not in special education classes.) In fact, the very first thing I did, even before I met him in person, was completely wreck something he was trying to do. He was setting up some kind of standards for a web site our class was working on. I thought they were boring and marked them all up with my comments. I'm pretty surprised he even spoke to me after that. But hey, things worked out.

Being in a relationship with me (not just romantic - family and friends, too) takes a little bit more work than it does with other people. I'm not saying I'm high maintenance, I just expect people with me to help me out a bit. I suppose I sometimes treat people as Hearing Ear People. Without even consciously realizing it, I rely on my husband, family, friends, and coworkers to alert me to sounds I would not otherwise be aware of. Sometimes this is active alerting like pulling me to the side in a parking lot when a car is coming. Other times it is passive, such as when I observe other people's reactions to a speaker to get hints for context and tone. So as I started dating Scotty I naturally started to rely on him just as I did my mom, dad, brother, and friends. It was never really something I talked to him about because it was never something I thought about.

So I'm very lucky that he simply fell into the role, as though he was born to do it. From the start, he did the same things my family would do. He'd tell me when the telephone was ringing, when someone was saying my name, when people were talking about things in the other room that I ought to be aware of. He tried to broaden my musical horizons, which is not easy with somebody so stuck with the same songs and performers. His voice is almost always easy to understand and he's never gotten irritated about repeating himself. And his sense of humor means that if I completely misunderstand something - turn one word into another, miss the context of the situation - it will become a joke, and not a point of disruption.

For this blog, he's willing to do whatever crazy things I put him up to. He helped me figure out just how terrible I am at sound localization, took tests so that I could compare my ability to perceive tone with his, helped me figure out if my hearing aids' second program would work in a noisy restaurant, and helps me out a lot (along with the rest of my in-laws) when it comes to watching sports. Not to mention things unrelated to this blog like crazy craft ideas I get and TV shows I want to watch. (I knew he'd like Fringe.)

His support of me is absolute, which is something I appreciate more than I can say. He fully supported me getting my new hearing aids and helped me figure out how to use the Bluetooth features. He went to Best Buy twice with me to find a Bluetooth adapter for my computer. When I talk to him about hearing aids, cochlear implants and American Sign Language he is attentive and helps me see things in a new way.

So I think I have a pretty darn good life partner when it comes to my hearing loss. Obviously as a hearing person he had things to learn about what I need, but he's taught me so much, too. I'm very grateful for the seven years we have had so far together. And I have my fingers crossed for many, many more.

Okay, so that got a little sappy...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Giving Penn State the True Home Field Advantage with Acoustic Mapping

Now this is some cool stuff. Penn State is using auditory science to increase home field crowd noise. It brings a whole nother meaning to "home field advantage" when the opposing quarterback is facing a literal wall of noise brought on by a rowdy student body and some science.

Back in the 2007-2008 school year, a graduate student at Penn State used sound meters set up around the field to record the sound at various spots during games, and when each team had the ball. The noise in the stadium was 50 times as loud when Penn State was defending than when they were on the offense. It rose to 110 decibels when the opposing team had the ball, which "drown[ed] out the calls of the quarterback and ma[de] last-minute adjustments at the line of scrimmage very difficult."

The student then tested various seats in the stadium to find the loudest seats. Because of the stadium's architecture, there's an area at the end zones that is much louder than anywhere else, and that's where the team plans to seat the student body in 2011. As long as they stay quiet when their team's on that side of the field, and get rowdy when it's the opposite, they hope to cut "the range of a quarterback's voice by another six inches and potentially caus[e] more fal[se] starts and penalty opportunities."

(via Neatorama)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Talk to JAN About Accommodations in the Workplace

May 12 marked Day 75 of's countdown to the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Through their post, I learned about JAN for the first time. JAN stands for "Job Accommodation Network," and their website is here. According to the blog post, JAN is a resource for accommodations on the job, for employers and employees both. You can contact them through their website or their telephone numbers - 1-800-526-7234 or 1-877-781-9403 for TTY - and get live assistance on matters related to job accommodation.

They have some neat stuff on their website. For example, here's their list of "Accommodation Ideas for Hearing Loss." From there, you can select the type of accommodation that is needed and narrow down ideas and concepts to help. It also has information on what an employer needs to provide for an employee and what they can and can't do. There's a ton of information on there if you poke around.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Social Spheres Fight the Need for Social Bluffing

Yesterday I wrote about "social bluffing," that survival mechanism everyone uses to keep a conversation going when they're not quite catching every word. Well, imagine my surprise when the fun blog Neatorama linked to something that could help eliminate bluffing - if only it weren't quite so ridiculous-looking.

A student at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland came up with "social spheres," which are astronaut-like helmets worn on the head that connect people with each other. The spheres eliminate or muffle background noise, allowing people in bars and at parties to talk easily to each other.

Maybe they look a bit ridiculous, but it's neat that someone is trying to solve the problem. The BBC article is here, with photos of two versions of the social spheres.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Headache of Social Bluffing

On Tuesday, L.J. Miles of the blog Life with the Diva wrote a bit about "social bluffing." Social bluffing is something everyone does, hearing loss or not. If you are in a conversation and not quite hearing every word, many people compensate by pretending they've heard it, rather than disrupt the flow of conversation. Of course, if you have a hearing loss or something else affecting your comprehension, you'll end up resorting to "social bluffing" more often than hearing people need to.

"Conversation," by Pissaro
I myself do it all the time. I'm not kidding, all the time. Everyday conversation for me, with someone whose voice I'm not completely used to, is like a constant race to catch up to the conversation. If I miss a word, I have to mentally fill it in, and that of course delays my comprehension of the entire sentence. If I miss a whole statement, I then have to listen to other people's responses, to parse the context. Sometimes, I simply have to mentally check out of a conversation. It can be mentally exhausting to keep up with several people talking at once. I've actually found myself doing that more and more lately, but I don't like it. I don't like simply giving up on a conversation even if I know people will understand I'm just not hearing it.

So why not ask people to repeat themselves? A couple reasons. One is that it disrupts the conversation, as I mentioned above. Especially if you ask someone to repeat something when they were not speaking to you - if you're part of a conversation but someone else was being addressed. You have to take the chance of interrupting a response, and possibly cutting off other routes a conversation could have taken. Another is that people just don't like to repeat themselves. I can't tell you the number of times I've had to ask a stranger to repeat themselves (I work with the public) and gotten a dour stare in return. An uncomprehending stare, no less. Nothing can make you feel more stupid than asking for clarification and getting THAT look.

Oh, and then there's the dreaded "never mind." Or "ah, it wasn't important." The hand-wave. The blow-off. It's the other person telling you that if you didn't hear it in the first place you aren't important enough to be able to understand it. I could write this entire blog post just ranting about that phrase, so I'm going to leave it there. But it is another reason I dislike asking people to repeat themselves.

The problem is that trying to bluff your way through a conversation can have even more disastrous consequences than asking somebody to repeat themselves. You can find yourself making inappropriate responses for the conversation, answering questions incorrectly, and experiencing awkward silences when the other person is done but you can't continue the conversation. It can lead to people thinking you're stupid, slow or inappropriate. It can lead to frantic scrambling as you try to cover your butt and make an excuse for why the heck you just said a complete non-sequitur. I'm having terrible flashbacks to high school.

So why is it so easy for me and other people with hearing loss to continue bluffing? Well, for me it's because I'm pretty shy already and I'd generally rather try not to be assertive and make sure I'm understanding things. I know I shouldn't think like that, but that's my thought process. For most of my school years I got along basically just listening to the teacher, and watching other students if I missed anything (that is, if I knew I missed anything. Who knows how much just flew past me?). Many people I went to school with did not know I had a hearing loss. Unfortunately many of them probably thought that I was stuck up or hated everyone because I "ignored" them.

I've been trying lately to come up with ways to avoid bluffing. I ask members of the public who speak to me at work to write down as much as possible for a library card application, for example. I have them write down the names of books they are looking for and the names of their children who want cards. Sometimes if I know I heard something wrong, I make a joke out of it and say "Oh, I thought you said this, but that can't be right!" to bring a little humor into it. Of course I'm still bluffing every day. Sometimes you just have to - it's a survival mechanism. I'll just keep on figuring ways to get around it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Google Voice for the Deaf

Recently someone was kind enough to give me an invitation to Google Voice, a service I've been dying to try ever since I found out about some of the nifty features.

If you've never heard of Google Voice, it's a service provided by Google which allows you to either use an existing phone number or create a new phone number and use features like getting your voicemail online, sending and receiving text messages online, blocking callers, setting up unique voicemail messages, and more. It's a pretty unique service and it actually has a lot to it. What I want to focus on in this post is how Google Voice can benefit someone who is deaf.

Transcribed Voicemail
The first and most obvious benefit is in Google's voicemail transcripts. When you receive a voicemail, Google sends a transcript and an audio file to your Google Voice inbox. You can view the transcript moments after the voicemail is sent and you can listen to an audio file. I had my husband leave me a voicemail to see how good the transcribing is. In the voicemail, he said, "This is a test of the Google Voice system like my wife asked me to do. Goodbye."

(Click to make larger)

Google Voice transcribed that as "This is a test of the global works. The surgeon system like my wife has asked me to take goodbye."

I think you can tell from this that it isn't quite perfect, like most audio transcribing services. It would be a very bad idea to rely on this transcribing at face value. However, it can give you an idea of what the voicemail is about, and if it is about something you've already dealt with you can delete it without having to listen. If you do need to listen to the voicemail, there's a player just underneath the transcription. As the player plays the audio message, the words it thinks correspond to the transcription become highlighted and underlined in green.

You can't see it in my screenshot, but if the transcription is useful or not, you can check a box next to it to let Google know. If you tell the system that the transcription was not useful, you have the option of "donating" the voicemail to Google to help improve their service. So, this is something that can definitely improve, and it looks like it will. (Check out this interesting article on the death of speech recognition.)

Easy Texting
I vastly prefer texting (or email) over a traditional phone call. Google Voice makes it easy to text. You click on "SMS" in the top left of your inbox, and see this:

You can enter up to five numbers at a time. As you type letters or numbers, Google brings up contacts you already have that may match the number, so don't worry about remembering each number each time. It does get a little tricky to see how many numbers you've entered after a while. But to be able to type the text message on a keyboard instead of a cellphone makes it so much easier! The "160" is the number of characters allowed in a text message. It decreases as you type in the Message field.

When someone responds to a text you can easily see the entire conversation in your Inbox, and reply to them from there.

Visual Cues
If you fill up your Contacts, as they call or text you, you can see pictures you've set for them. It makes for easy visual sorting of your Inbox and at-a-glance recognition of who called and when.

"Do Not Disturb"
In the Google Voice settings, there is a setting for "Do Not Disturb." You can use this setting to send callers directly to voicemail for however long you set. This can be useful if you are in a situation where you can't hear your phone ringing and don't want to worry about it, or just don't feel like taking voice calls that day.

Unique Voicemail Messages
You can group your Contacts into various groups and then set a unique voicemail message for each one. Let businesses know you'd prefer to be contacted by email or mail, tell your family you're not taking voice calls today, etc. I always get nervous recording voicemails (who knows why?) so I might not use this, but it's a cool feature.

I don't have any Google Voice invites at the moment, since I just signed up, but as soon as I do I'll make them available for readers of my blog. How about you? Are you using Google Voice already or do you think it would be useful for your day to day life?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is Tinnitus Genetic? Only 11% Of the Time

Have you ever experienced tinnitus - the uncomfortable sensation of sound (ringing, whining, or buzzing) in your head? I know I have, and many other people, as well. It's just not fun. I tended to experience it more often with my older hearing aids. Since getting my new aids, the strange ringing in my head has gone away, thankfully. I mean, I wouldn't want to have to use a treatment named after a method of suicide, after all.

This recent post from Medical News Today sheds a bit of light on the heritability of tinnitus. You might think that like many diseases, tinnitus has a genetic component. You would be right, but it turns out that only 11% of people who suffer from tinnitus have it because of a genetic factor. Far more common is the environment. If you have hearing loss due to exposure to loud noises, you might get tinnitus. If your parents suffer, it's not 100% certain that you will suffer, too.

Tinnitus is a pretty weird disorder. The more we know about it, the better!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Becoming a Sports Fan

Goran Dragic, courtesy of Wikipedia.
So recently I've found myself watching sports more often than I usually do. I grew up with a Dad who was a huge Arizona Cardinals football fan. In fact, I can remember being seven years old and discussing the name change from the Phoenix Cardinals to the Arizona Cardinals in 1993. (For the record, I much preferred Phoenix.) Although I liked football well enough I could never really get into it to be a huge fan. Now, my in-laws are made up of rabid Phoenix Suns fans. Sometimes I sit out in the living room and watch the games, but for the most part up until recently I never paid that much attention. I've been watching Suns games recently, though, and really enjoying it. It is basically impossible not to enjoy watching the Suns play. They have so much energy and are so connected. Egos never seem to come into play.

It's kind of hard to get into a sports game on television if you have difficulty hearing the announcers. Yes, if you know the rules of the game you can simply watch it, and of course the score is always displayed on the television. But starting out just watching a game is no way to become a fan of a specific team. You miss out on what the announcers have to say about the history of the team, an individual player's record or personality, the possible reasons behind a coach pulling back another player and sending out someone from the bench, etc., etc. And I'm sure you all know just how terrible captioning during live sporting events is. It's seconds behind and by the time it catches up the team is well on to another play.

And I'm not even going to mention the fouls. This is the bane of my life when I'm watching a basketball game. I have never once actually heard an announcer when they said what a foul was for, not to mention hearing the ref's whistle when a foul occurs. I actually loved it when we went to an actual game and I could see on the scoreboard the number of fouls. I could glance up if I thought I heard a whistle and see the number change and know which team the foul was against. Too bad no television channel shows a display of fouls like they do the score; it really helped.

So if it's such a pain how am I enjoying the Suns games of late? Well, Scotty went through and showed me a picture of each member of the team (from the Suns' official website). Now I know what each person looks like, their personality and their jersey number. That helps a lot in terms of understanding the announcer because I know the names to listen for. And I've been listening to my family when they react to the game. They are easier to hear than the announcers (especially when they are yelling right in your ear)! And part of it is becoming more familiar with the game. If one team has the ball and a foul is called it's probably against the other team. You can only get familiar with the game by watching it.

Deafness is not new in the world of sports. My dad was fond of telling me the story that the American football huddle was invented because of a Deaf player (to prevent the other team from learning the plays that were about to happen because of his signing). It can just be a bit trickier to become a fan in the first place.

Oh, and by the way, GO SUNS!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Giant Leap & A Big Deal - FCC's Recommendations on Accessibility

On April 23, the FCC released "A Giant Leap & A Big Deal: Delivering on the Promise of Equal Access to Broadband for People with Disabilities." (PDF link.) The paper is the first-ever paper released by the FCC on accessibility and technology issues. According to this article (another PDF), "the paper considers the numerous barriers to broadband usage faced by people with disabilities, including inaccessible hardware, software, services, and web content and expensive specialized assistive technologies."

As the paper explains, it typically takes a very long time - years, decades - for technology to "catch up" to serving the entirety of the population's needs, and with every leap forward in technology, it seems that accessibility takes a step backward. If you want to use HDMI cables with your television, say goodbye to closed captioning; the same if you want to watch shows online. It's important to 'catch' broadband technology while it's still young and make it fully accessible for everyone.

One of the FCC's recommendations is "that Congress, the FCC, and DOJ should update accessibility laws, regulations, and related subsidy programs 'to cover Internet Protocol based communications and video programming technologies.'"

Check out the paper. It's 36 pages long, but not a long read, since half of each page has citations. It's filled with some eye-opening statistics and information. There's even a shout-out to open source software like Orca.

(via ResourceShelf)

Thursday, May 6, 2010 - The Testing Kit Arrived!

Back in April I wrote a bit about the website and a special they were doing for DNA Day. They discounted their genetic testing services from $499 to $99. Unfortunately by the time I got home the deal seemed to have expired, but 23andMe was awesome and gave me the discount anyway. I ordered my kit a few days ago and just got the box in the mail.

The way the website works is, you order the service (either Ancestry, which details your relatives and ethnic history, or Health, which evaluates your propensity towards various diseases, or both) and they send you a tube you have to spit in. Then you send that back, they test the sample, and post the results online.

My results are not done yet, of course. I just sent the sample back this morning. According to the documentation I received, I should be notified my results are ready in 6-8 weeks. I am mostly curious about my results for the Connexin 26 gene. It's possible this gene is the culprit behind my hearing loss and it will be nice to know if that's true.

Here's what the inside of the box they sent me looked like. I had to laugh when I opened it because it looked very 'science-y' and intimidating! I even got my own little biohazard bag... pretty cool:

Expect another post with my results in 6-8 weeks!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Universal Subtitles - Anywhere on the Web

What would it be like to watch any videos on the web with subtitles? No matter the format or the host of the content?

Even better - what if there were a universal protocol for websites, browsers, and browser extensions to follow, and a way for your browser to match up subtitles to whatever you're watching?

And... if you wanted to get involved in subtitling, or give your input, what if there was a website full of collaborative tools for you to utilize?

Take a look at the Universal Subtitles project. The project, whose primary motivator is accessibility, is being sponsored by the Participatory Culture Foundation, which is "work[ing] to build a fairer, more open, and more democratic media space," and it has seed money from the Mozilla Foundation. If that sounds familiar, they're the people behind the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird email client and other open source initiatives.

Universal Subtitles is composed of three parts: a user-friendly interface to add captions to videos on the web, a protocol that will allow browsers and other clients to access quality subtitles to pull from, and a collaborative website that will allow people to form projects, recruit people, track projects and more.

I just heard about this project today from SignCasts. They need about $25,000 to get things moving along, and Mozilla is matching donations dollar for dollar. This sounds like a great cause - and it could turn into something wonderful for everybody.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Roller Coasters Can Cause Ear Damage

Just about everyone has heard of the dangers of hearing loss from music - concerts and headphones, but what about roller coasters?

That surprised me when I read this article from U.S. News & World Report. I love roller coasters myself, and it never occurred to me that they could be a source of ear damage. But according to the article, it's the force of acceleration on a roller coaster that does it, leading to "ear barotrauma." Ear barotrauma refers to the pain and discomfort you can feel when the pressure behind your eardrum is different from the pressure outside. To fix it, you need to pop your ears. I'm sure everyone has experienced that sensation before, on plane rides or long car trips where the elevation changes.

Unfortunately on roller coasters sometimes more damage can occur. The article relates the story of a 24-year-old who turned to the left at exactly the wrong time. His right ear took the full brunt of the acceleration of the coaster and led to swelling and inflammation 36 hours after the ride. Luckily he was feeling better after three days.

I've never heard a roller coaster operator caution the riders to stay facing forward before, but I have a feeling this may become a common warning on signs. Roller coasters just keep getting more and more extreme and as they do, problems nobody could anticipate will keep coming up. I don't think this is going to stop me from enjoying coasters, but it will make me think a bit more about my position during the ride.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Harkins Theatres and the ADA: Closed Captions Required

As the Americans with Disabilities Act nears its 20th anniversary, a new legal decision has been reached against one of my local movie theaters for violation of it. Harkins Theaters, which does business in Arizona and four other states, was recently sued for failure to accommodate people who cannot hear or see the movies they play.

Check out the (easy to read) PDF explaining the decision here. According to the summary on Hearing Loss Law, open captions are probably not covered under the ADA because they are visible to the entire theater and "may fundamentally alter the movie-going experience for others. But closed-captioning displays captions only to people who want to see them." The next stop for the case is the Arizona district court, where Harkins can try to prove that providing these captions will be an "undue burden" to their operation.

The one and only captioned movie I've ever seen in a theater was at Harkins. It was with my mom, and the movie was the remake of The Stepford Wives. Since then, I've only seen movies without captions, which limits the types of movies I can see (ones without a lot of accents or a lot of background noise). Harkins has consistently disappointed me with the number of movies they have available with captioning, and they're almost never the movies I'd want to see. On their "open captioned" page, as of May 2nd, 2010, they list only one movie available: Green Zone, and it's only available in one theater, an hour away, in Phoenix.

Living in Arizona, Harkins Theatres are ubiquitous. I've heard about their giving to charity all my life. According to their website, "Over the past 20 years, Harkins Theatres has helped set a new standard for charitable giving in the Western U.S. [...] Harkins Theatres has worked with dozens of groups, including Boys & Girls Clubs in Metro Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Denver, March of Dimes, Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Alzheimer's Association, Phoenix Children's Hospital, The Children's Center in Oklahoma City, The Humane Society and many more." It's always seemed like a double standard that they are so willing to give of their money to others, but not to invest in opportunities to allow those in their community to enjoy the entertainment they provide. Hopefully this ruling will help them "see the light."

(via Deafness Blog)