Spelling it out: Call captioning comes to Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Cheri Banks considers herself technologically savvy. She likes the latest gizmos and is always dabbling in communications technology and downloading stories and articles onto her eBook. So when Bill Ritzman, Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator in Penn State’s Affirmative Action Office, called to tell her about a new Internet-based call captioning service available on the University’s phone system, Banks, who is hearing impaired, was one of the first to get the service. 

Call captioning provides speech-to-text translation onto the screens of University Park telephones (specifically, Cisco CP-7961/62 IP telephone models) to assist hearing impaired staff members with phone communications. The service is available free to eligible telephone users through Penn State’s Affirmative Action Office.

Banks has worn hearing aids since the second grade and recently underwent a cochlear implant. Over the years, she has been using different technologies to help her communicate better over the phone. “I’ve tried just about every hearing assisted device there is — from computers that type out phone messages to a specialty telephone that displays every word the caller says on the phone’s display — and they worked well, but they were always stand-alone systems that weren’t integrated into the office phone system, and they didn’t have voice mail capability, “ said Banks. “So when I heard about a call captioning feature I could get on my regular University phone, I was thrilled because now I could be a part of the office and transfer calls and have voice mail.”

For more than 12 years, Banks has served as a full-time budget assistant for Sue Kellerman, head of the Libraries’ Digitization and Preservation Department. But Banks remembers a time when she had trouble getting a job or being promoted because of her hearing impairment. “I studied hard in college and graduated from Penn State with a bachelor of science degree in business administration for marketing — receiving a perfect 4.0 GPA (grade-point average) in all of my marketing classes — and later took post-graduate accounting classes at three separate universities,” said Banks. “I was very honest in job interviews about not being able to use the telephone,” she recalled, her eyes welling up with tears. “But marketing is very communication-oriented and being a Certified Public Accountant requires one to talk to clients on a daily basis, so I had trouble finding work or advancing in my careers.”

Because of this, Banks felt isolated and disconnected from the working world until she got her current job at the Libraries, where she now feels like part of the team. “Sue (Kellerman) has always been very accommodating in getting the tools I need to do my job,” said Banks. “When I started, I was her staff assistant and was responsible for answering calls and taking phone messages, but eventually we worked out an arrangement where I could delegate phone tasks to somebody else.”

But the new service is helping Banks feel, and stay, connected. Through the service, captions of her phone conversations are generated by a captioner — someone who hears the caller and repeats the conversation to a voice recognition system trained to his or her voice. The voice recognition system transfers the sound to text captions that are accurate and in near real-time.

The captions are spelled out on Banks’ telephone display, and she doesn’t have any qualms about security because she knows the service’s call captioning agents are working in regulated call centers that have been bonded and are under full non-disclosure agreements. Agents on the production floor are not permitted to have pens, paper or cellphones.

However, because the call captioning agents transcribe every cough, sneeze or gurgle they hear, Banks recalled a funny instance on one call during which the text read “flush” in brackets. “I thought to myself, ‘Are they really conducting this call in the bathroom?’” She laughed, remembering the transcription that came across her display.

Banks says the call captioning feature is intuitive and easy to use, and she uses it to caption all of her incoming calls.  

“Since I got my University phone set and the call captioning service it’s been fantastic; I’ve been really happy every time I’ve used it. I feel free now, not blocked,” she said. “And I will come full circle when I start answering my department head’s calls for her.”

For more information about the call captioning service, visit http://www.tns.its.psu.edu/ServiceCatalog/VoiceServices/CallCaptioning.html.

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu.

Last Updated July 18, 2014