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Tech Tools and Apps for Improved Sound Access

7 min read

Participants in Clarke Buddies, a program connecting students who are deaf or hard of hearing, meet online in 2021.

Participants in Clarke Buddies, a program connecting students who are deaf or hard of hearing, meet online in 2021.

For children with hearing loss, the ever-evolving technology that provides improved access to sound in the classroom—or just hanging around with friends—has been a game-changer.

Technology tools and mobile apps provide practical benefits, such as allowing sound to stream directly to cochlear implants and hearing aids or providing real-time closed captioning. Those options have only become more important in the past year as steps taken to ensure public health have unfortunately also created barriers to good listening environments. 

Dr. Tina Childress, AuD, CCC-A, educational audiologist in an Illinois school district and bilateral cochlear implant user.

Dr. Tina Childress, AuD, CCC-A, educational audiologist in an Illinois school district and bilateral cochlear implant user.

“Masks and social distancing are making it harder to hear in closed as well as open spaces,” says Dr. Tina Childress, AuD, CCC-A, an educational audiologist in an Illinois school district and a bilateral cochlear implant user. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in the use of captioning apps not only in mobile devices when we’re out in public but also on videoconferencing platforms.”

She notes that one rare benefit of the pandemic is that videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet have mostly changed for the better—providing free captioning services during the past year, for example, as they became critical tools for keeping people connected.

Similarly, more teachers are using captioning and speaker towers in the classroom setting which provide better access for all students, whether they’re learning in person or remotely. There’s an added benefit in being able to use accommodations without being singled out. “It’s important for some kids to not feel different,” she says. 

Common Challenges as Tech Evolves

Not all tech advances will provide equal benefits to students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Different circumstances and individual preference affect which option is the best choice in a given situation. Tina shares some common challenges when incorporating tech tools—as well as potential solutions.

  • Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR)
    Automatic Speech Recognition or auto-captioning (ASR) tends to be less accurate than manual speech-to-text services, such as Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), but it has less lag time between when the speaker talks and when the caption appears.

    “If there is a good auditory signal, ASR can be quite accurate,” says Tina. “The trick is figuring out which works best for the student.” She adds that educational law “requires the accommodation provide ‘effective communication’ and consider ‘accuracy of translation.’” She also notes that for a variety of reasons, such as connectivity issues or a speaker with an accent, ASR may not fit the criteria. “In my opinion, ASR is quite accurate as long as one person at a time is speaking,” she says. “But it’s important to figure out what works best for the student.”

  • Troubleshooting School-Issued Laptops & Tablets
    Remote learning has also increased the number of students using school-issued laptops and tablets—a trend likely here to stay. However, some machines don’t provide access to features that can benefit students with hearing loss. One issue Tina highlights is poor functionality of Zoom’s auto transcription on certain devices. Where possible, she recommends downloading Google’s Live Transcribe & Sound Notifications app, which provides free, real-time transcriptions, to bridge this gap.

  • Live Captioning
    Another ongoing challenge is that live events broadcast on platforms like Facebook Live and YouTube Live are becoming more popular for school, church and community events—but these lack accurate synchronous captioning. Tina says that she has used WebCaptioner or Live Caption in her Chrome browser, or Live Transcribe on her phone next to her computer speakers to provide captions, but their results still depend on the quality of the sound input. (For example, live captioning for an outdoor event may have many errors.)

    In the meantime, users can request that organizations find alternative platforms with better live captioning and/or lobby these platforms to improve their options.

Evaluating the Best App or Tool

No matter the problem, chances are that teachers and families will discover multiple solutions. There is no one best choice for all people, and sometimes the simplest is the best. “There is no need to go straight for the most complicated option. You may just need to turn up the volume or connect a mic,” Tina says.  

As for apps, they’re only useful if they actually get used. For each new app, Tina recommends first confirming that it’s compatible with your device, then practice using it with your child. But down the road, it may be less necessary to consider your device platform (e.g., Android, iOS) when choosing apps. “One trend I’m seeing with apps is …they’re becoming more browser-based so they can be viewed on any device that has access to a browser,” Tina notes.

She also recommends occasionally practicing a technique called “sabotage,” to confirm a student can troubleshoot basic tech issues. For example, a teacher might not turn on a microphone to give the student a chance to point out that it isn’t working. This type of self-advocacy is so important in evaluating how well a given tool or app is working for your student or child. Help children understand how to express when they feel that they need better access to sound.

Top Choices for Students, Professionals and Parents

While everyone will have different preferences and needs, this list of Tina’s top choices for tools and apps may offer a helpful starting point.

For professionals and educators working with children who are deaf or hard of hearing:

  • Determine, preferably with data, whether to use speech-to-text or ASR. You can measure the effectiveness using tools like Tina’s MASK (Maximizing Accommodations for Successful Kids) questionnaire, a checklist she developed to help evaluate the effectiveness of various accommodations.

  • Try Live Transcribe & Sound Notifications (for Android devices) and Otter (for iOS mobile devices) for mobile captioning.

  • Zoom is the most hearing-loss-friendly videoconferencing platform overall, according to Tina.

  • Remote microphone systems are effective for most classroom and hybrid situations.

  • Use external mics (such as a Bluetooth mic or a headset with boom mic) for all remote teaching to ensure the best signal for all students, regardless of their hearing.

For families of children who are deaf or hard of hearing:

  • Determine the best kind of mask for your child and follow CDC guidelines. Paper/cloth masks are generally better for auditory learners; clear masks help those who need visual support. (Read more on this topic in “So, Which Mask is Best?” on Clarke’s Hear Me Out blog.)

  • Use captioning on all media, even if the child is too young to read. This gets them used to having captions and can even support their reading development. 

When children are younger, families and schools may be making the choices about which tools and apps they use. But it’s important to lay the groundwork early for students to understand self-advocacy and become part of the process of evaluating their options. Your child will need to be able to explain what they need. Check in and ask questions; encourage them to share their experiences with technology.

Children also need to be taught in age-appropriate ways how their equipment works and how to care for it, as well as how they can use different tools and accessories in different settings. For example, the remote mic that works great in the classroom may not be the best option during a band concert.

The child using the technology to access sound will be the best judge of how well their devices and apps are serving their needs. The sooner they can understand and explain what they need to the parents and professionals supporting them, the better access—and overall experience—they’ll have.

Tech Recommendations from Clarke Teachers of the Deaf

Clarke teachers of the deaf have extensive real-world experience with how well various tech tools support their students. Here is a sample of some favorite options.

Katie Jennings, MED, Clarke teacher of the deaf and assistant director at Clarke Boston:

I’ve been shocked at how versatile and useful Google Slides have been. You can literally transform anything into a Google Slide activity. I have been able to create virtual journals with my students that can be worked on in-person or remotely, and my students can utilize them when they are working independently outside of our sessions. It’s nice to have a virtual resource that keeps track of student progress and can be useful even after the pandemic is over.

Heather Stinson, CAGS, MED, S/LP-A, Clarke teacher of the deaf:

I like some of the Chrome extensions:  

  • Tactiq for Google Meet Transcription. If this gets turned on while the closed captions are running during a Google Meet, it gives you an entire transcript at the end of the Meet which you can download, edit, add notes to and save. I love this because sometimes I’m afraid the captioning goes too fast for my students to read and fully process. With this, I can highlight specific parts of live online classes with important content for them to review.  

  • YouTube downloader. It allows you to download YouTube videos and save to your computer in whatever format you want. This way, if a video is not captioned or if the captions are really inaccurate, I can save the video to my desktop and add my own captions with an outside app or play the video while running a live captioning app simultaneously. 

Michele Bohannon, MS, Clarke teacher of the deaf: 

My favorite apps/sites are BookFlix and PinkCat Games. They are both easy to use in virtual learning and in-person. My students really love both. 

  • BookFlix pairs a fiction and nonfiction book for each lesson followed by vocabulary, comprehension and simple sequencing games. An example would be the fictional story Bear Snores On, by Karma Wilson, paired with the nonfiction story, A Bear Cub Grows Up, by Pam Zollman. There are nine categories of books with many choices in each. It’s recommended for Pre-K to third graders, but my fourth grader likes it very much. (BookFlix has a fee, but many public libraries offer it free for cardholders.) 

  • PinkCat Games is for Pre-K through high school and has tons of games to choose from, or you can create your own. To use it, you put in the subject and grade level you want, and a variety of choices will pop up. The students love it because there are so many different games and game boards to play. (Some PinkCat Games are free or you can subscribe to access more games. The free account is definitely the way to start.) 

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