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The Equal Access Journey: One Parent's Testimony of How Captioning Benefitted Her Children's Education and Kick-started Her New Career

By Michelle Rich

I am the mother of three children: a college freshman (Kyle) who is profoundly deaf, a teen-aged daughter (Megan) with sloping mild to profound hearing loss, and a hearing son (Keegan) who is finishing the second grade. My parental journey through an inaccessible world—and all the steps therein—began 14 years ago when my nearly five-year-old son was identified as having a hearing loss, was emboldened when Megan was diagnosed with a hearing loss, and continues today, step by step, learning experience by learning experience.

Step One: Start the Journey

As I began to accept the fact that two of my children would not hear, I also started to learn the importance of accessibility in the classroom. Luckily for Kyle, he always had the most amazing teachers who worked hard to assure his academic and social success. I also learned the value of joining a parent group, where my eyes were opened to the benefits of captioning.

Three children watch a video on a laptop.
Megan, Kyle and Keegan Rich enjoy a captioned DCMP title delivered through the internet to their laptop.

One of the functions of our parent group was to sell tshirts at a monthly open-captioned movie presentation. My family's participation would prove to be a pivotal point in our lives. Kyle began to read! I knew that skill was crucial to academic success, so we also began watching captioned TV at home, where he was exposed to even more language. My daughter Megan also benefitted from all the language exposure and became an early reader. I attribute her excellent reading skills to all the time she was exposed to captions as a preschooler. Incidentally, Keegan is also a strong reader. The exposure he has had to captions on television and at the movies, as well as the focus on language in our home, have only strengthened his ability to read. Captions are good for hearing children too!

Megan, Kyle, and Keegan Rich enjoy a captioned DCMP title delivered through the internet to their laptop. In addition to my parent group meetings, I also had a weekly meeting with two other moms of children with hearing loss to examine and explore our respective life plans. We discussed a new captionist job in our school district. Captioning equipment had been purchased by the district, and with access as my new focus, I decided to pursue a career doing something that would benefit my children and others like them. The securing of my new job would also prove to be a pivotal point in our lives.

Becoming a Captionist

Because much of television programming and entertainment media were captioned, I originally assumed that videos used in the classroom would be captioned. I was flabbergasted and appalled to learn that nearly 85 percent of educational media was not captioned. There was a mountain of work to be done!

It was shocking to watch educational productions without the sound. In some instances, viewers couldn't even guess what the subject was. In many educational titles, much of the content is narrated, and a viewer with no hearing had no ability to even attempt to lipread a speaker. Often a still picture is placed on the screen while loads of information is given about the subject. Without captions, that information is not understood by a student with a hearing loss. My "little" typing job thus became a mission: to provide access through captioning educational media to the many students in my district with hearing loss. I did not yet realize where my journey would take me.

Step Two: Research Available Resources and Be Ready to Advocate

Through my job, I became aware of the Captioned Media Program, now known as the Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP). This program provided my family and my children's teachers with access to a free-loan library of over 4000 captioned educational media titles. This was a huge discovery! No more frustration of finding a good piece of media only to discover that it wasn't accessible. So the mountain of educational media to be captioned was being climbed by the DCMP and dismantled one stone at a time.

I called the DCMP to thank them for the critical work they were doing, and they invited me to participate in a four-day conference to select media for captioning. While there, a remarkable thing happened. It was another moment that was "frozen in time" for me.

As goofy as this will sound, I have chills recalling this moment. While waiting for transportation to the work site for the day, I overheard a university disability coordinator talking about real-time captioning (RTC–also called "transcription"). I could not believe my ears, and I knew in my heart that this would change Kyle's world. He never used sign language well, but loved to read. If classroom lectures and discussions could be delivered to him in his dominant language, in real time, there would be no stopping him; equal access would dramatically expand his academic world.

Step Three: Use Your Resources

Not only was Kyle the perfect match for RTC, but the progressive Kansas school district in which I worked was the perfect location to implement it. The district had 26,000 students (nearly 300 of which had hearing loss), employing 26 interpreters and 8 teachers of the deaf. I returned from the conference eager to share news of this new technology. RTC would be a big addition, though, and it would take time and effort to sell the idea.

I pitched it to our special education coordinators, who allowed me to do more exploration. First, I took a small group of teachers to see this system in action at a community college in our area. Next, I talked to Kyle's team of general educators about his specific learning needs and how this newfound technology could help. Finally, I explored the costs and feasibility of acquiring the equipment and staff necessary to pull it off. Then, I waited.

When Kyle was in the 9th grade, his science teacher had what he termed a "serendipitous" experience. He developed an ear condition that left him temporarily deaf in one ear, and he told us at a parent-teacher conference that he had no idea how Kyle functioned in the classroom without hearing.

Things fell into place. Kyle's team felt it was time for RTC, his coursework demanded support in his native language, the transcription system was available and affordable, and the district was willing to implement it. Later that year, Kyle began receiving his core subjects through the modality of RTC, and it changed our world. It was as significant for Kyle as had been putting on a hearing aid. It allowed him to become the individual he wanted to be—a speaking, lipreading, English-using, profoundly deaf student. Captioning allowed him to become himself.

Step Four: Acknowledge the Journey as Being One Step at a Time

It is written in The Tao Te Ching, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." In that vein, my advice to parents who share my enthusiasm for equal access is the following:

  • Observe – Watch your children and follow their lead. Find out who they want to become and find ways to support them in achieving their goals.
  • Get involved – Talk to other parents who have children with exceptionalities similar to those of your children. Attend a group or join a club—if none exist in your area, start one. Learn what worked for others and why.
  • Show gratitude to those who are making a difference for your children – Thank your children's teachers, support staff, and school administrators. Make it a point to acknowledge systems that make a difference, such as theaters that show captioned and described movies, television networks that caption and describe your family's favorite programs, government-sponsored programs like the DCMP, or even airports and restaurants that display captions on their televisions or provide accessible (i.e., braille and large-print) menus and forms. Let others know that you appreciate their efforts to provide access to your children.
  • Find ways to educate others about your children's exceptionality – As a parent, you'll cross paths with people who just don't understand hearing or vision loss. Use your influence to enlighten them. Do your best to educate them. If it works, great! You've done your job for your children and others like them. However, if it doesn't, move on; you'll need your energy to try again another day.
  • Take a step toward making a difference – You don't always have to take a big step, but try to be a catalyst for movement in the right direction. Sometimes you actually may effect an immediate and significant change, but other times you may just plant the seed.
  • Get active when access is not provided – Find a way to communicate the need for access. Contact the producers of television programs and educational productions that are not accessible to your children; contact anyone who participated in a situation in which your children did not have equal access. Offer suggestions and solutions.
  • Include humor in your life – A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, essential to getting along with others, and helpful in getting things done. A child's sense of humor begins to develop in early infancy, and it is a trait that must be nurtured by his/her parents. Humor helps children to deal with problems and concerns that may otherwise be suppressed.

Step Five: Celebrate Your Accomplishments During the Journey

Over the past nine years of captioning, I've been able to make hundreds of videos and DVDs accessible to students. I've made lots of phone calls to media production companies, advocating for captioning. Sometimes the company begins captioning based upon our conversation. Other times, I hope a seed has been planted that will later grow.

As I was advocating with a film company for captioning a few years ago, another amazing thing happened. The company was working with a large captioning provider, CaptionMax, to obtain an educational grant to develop and provide access through captioning. The grant was awarded, and I was asked to be a member of their Consumer Advisory Board. What an honor! After all, these people providing access across a broad spectrum of media are my heroes.

Step Six: Follow Through With Your Plan

More growing pains were in store for us last year as we waded through the college selection process with Kyle. The process involved a delicate balance of meeting his academic goals and proposed major, fulfilling his dream of playing college baseball, and satisfying his need for access to classroom information. The major came easily. He's wanted to be a veterinarian since he was in elementary school. Baseball recruiting was a mysterious process, but successful. He signed at a rural community college a few hours from home that would offer him the chance to live, eat, and breathe baseball while playing close to 100 games in two semesters.

The piece of the puzzle that I thought would be the easiest, accommodations for Kyle's deafness, was by far the hardest. The community college where he was offered a full baseball scholarship, which had a pre-vet med associate's degree, and where he felt most at home, had never had an oral deaf student before. This was new ground for both the college and us, and it would be a long and tedious process toward resolving the communication and delivery of academic content with student accessibility needs.

We turned to PEPNET, an organization that helps students with hearing loss transition from high school to college. We also contacted our state Vocational Rehabilitation Department to understand the scope of college accommodations and our rights and responsibilities. Kyle had his first real taste of advocating for himself with something so large that it could alter his future path and either help him fulfill his dream or crush it. Kyle did end up receiving an appropriate accommodation during his freshman year. Because his college is in a small town with no one who was trained in real-time captioning, the college hired his transcriptionist from high school to provide services remotely. For each class, Kyle hands a microphone to his professor at the beginning of the session. He then connects through the internet to Skype. On the other end sits his transcriptionist from Kansas City who listens to the class and types away. The transcription is sent through the network, and Kyle reads the transcript in nearly real time. It's nothing short of amazing.

Megan is finishing her 8th -grade year and will move on to the high school next year. This spring, her hearing loss took a significant dive in one ear, leaving her profoundly deaf in most of the speech ranges. It took her a few weeks to adjust emotionally to the changes and then to the hearing aid reprogramming. The reprogram on her aids brought some sounds into range that she hadn't heard for awhile, like the purr of the engine in the car that she's learning to drive or the crumpling of paper as it slid across the table and left other sounds out of reach.

I even managed to learn how to use a few new pieces of emerging technology, proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Kyle and I keep in contact with instant messaging and texting, and I'm starting to pick up the jargon and speed that comes with texting. My friends on the Consumer Advisory Board at CaptionMax have wowed me with the cool tools and gadgets available for those who are blind or deaf. The tools, which include different ways to caption (and captioning is a great tool that can be used to promote and improve literacy) and describe audio (and description is a great tool that can be used to promote language development), can be used with success by people who are hearing and sighted! Captioning and description break down barriers to access for those with sensory deficits and provide new means of universal accessibility for all lifelong learners.

Step Seven: Remember to Reassess and Adjust as Necessary

A teen boy in a baseball uniform throws a ball.
In addition to graduating high school with honors, Kyle played football and baseball. He now plays college baseball.

So far, my journey has taken me through valleys and over mountaintops. When you have children with a specific exceptionality, you're all the more proud of their accomplishments because you know how hard it was for them to get there. Deep inside you celebrate the strength they possess in persevering and in experiencing the world, despite the inevitable challenges.

When I look back through the past 14 years, I have such pride in my children and am thankful for my own growth. Kyle graduated with honors from high school and moved on to live his dream of playing college baseball. Megan is a great student, awesome friend, and nurturing babysitter. Keegan is a strong reader and connoisseur of TV captions and is quick to point out which ones are accurate and well-timed. While our journey is far from over, I look to the future with confidence.

For our family, captions really equate to access to the world. They allow my two children with a hearing loss to have access to educational material in the classroom, to entertainment and social events, and to critical information like the news and weather. And my hearing child's language development has been an added benefit.

Conclusion

I have tried to communicate the steps that have helped bring access, opportunity, and success to my children. With the right amount of support, other parents and children prepared to work hard can achieve the same for their children.

About the Author

Michelle Rich and her family of five pose together at a beach.

Michelle Rich lives in Kansas with her husband and their three children, two of whom have hearing loss. She has been an educational captionist for a large Kansas school district for nine years. When she is not advocating for captioning, she is enjoying time with her children and probably at the baseball fields watching a game or two. She is an avid user of DCMP media, and she is on the advisory board for U.S. Department of Education "Emerging Technology" grants awarded to CaptionMax. She has a master's degree in psychology.

Tags: parents