CD-ROMs and the deaf

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The following information is of concern to anyone involved in manufacturing, desigining, distributing or using CD-ROMs. You are urged to bring it to the attention of anyone whom it may concern.

The goal is to prevent a new technology from becoming an handicap and curse to people with hearing problems.

Sound effects in PC software - trouble for the Deaf

About PC sounds, I came across an interesting article. Let me quote a part of it:

" PCs become ever more powerful, software writers are introducing sound (including extensive synthesized speech) into programs. Serious barriers result when they do so without accommodating the needs of deaf and hoh people. Fortunately, the leading software manufacturers such as Microsoft and IBM are aware of the needs of deaf and hoh people. IBM, for example, distributes an AccessDOS package that may be added to PC-DOS or MS-DOS packages, including DOS-6. AccessDOS offers a feature called "ShowSounds" which makes the screen flash whenever the system speaker is activated. Because the solution cannot distinguish between different kinds of sounds, Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison is advancing an improved "Show Sounds" application. The new ShowSounds software switch would enable application developers to display on-screen captions so the words sent to the system speaker become visible. In effect, the proposed switch provides "closed captions"-captions that become visible only when the Show Sounds switch is set. PC users without impaired hearing would never see the captions, unless they wanted to-as, for example, in a library or on an airplane when they do not wish PC-generated sounds to disturb other people. (Here is yet another example of accommodations to persons with disabilities which benefit everyone)."

(Contributed by at 2 Aug 1994.)

MEDIA ACCESS mailing list - subscription information

There is an Internet mailing list dedicated to closed-captioning, audio description, and other Media Access issues. The Media Access list will entertain all manner of discussion related to those topics, including:

Reports of good-- and bad-- captioning (e.g., you can write in to report some particularly skilful or inept captioning you saw, to report captioning outrages, to discuss the merits of a captioning company's style, and the like)

Technology issues, including access to up-and-coming technologies like CD-ROMs, virtual reality, computer games, etc.

Nuts-and-bolts questions: How do I listen to Descriptive Video? Where do I buy a caption decoder?

In short, anything you want to talk about on any topic related to making media accessible to people with vision or hearing impairments is OK. Of course, you don't have to be blind, visually-impaired, low-vision, deaf, or hard-of-hearing to participate. The mailing list is unmoderated; no one will censor what you say, though everyone has the right of reply.

For subscription information, browse Jamie Berke's Captioning Web at

(Contributed by Joe Clark at 30 Mar 1995, and updated by Jamie Berke at 29 Dec 1996.)

Full Visual Annotation of Auditorially Presented Information for Users Who Are Deaf: ShowSounds

Full Visual Annotation of Auditorially Presented

Information for Users Who Are Deaf: ShowSounds

Gregg C. Vanderheiden, Ph.D.
Trace R&D Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI


Speech and sound are being used more and more in computer and information systems which had previously been strictly visual. As the use of sound is incorporated more and more into these systems, individuals who are deaf are going to face increasing difficulties in accessing and using these systems. Since these will appear in education and employment as well as daily living, access to these systems is essential.

A standard cross-platform strategy for providing access to the sounds is proposed, in the form of a ShowSounds "switch" which could be built into the systems. Flipping this (software) switch would cause the information being presented auditorially to also be presented visually. This would apply both to information presented by the operating system and to individual application programs that supported this capability. This visual annotation would go beyond just captioning, and would include other visual display as necessary to convey any important information presented auditorially.


Currently, people with hearing impairments have little or no difficulty in using computers. The use of sound as a standard feature has been minimal, usually no more than a "beep." Often, the beep is accompanied by some other indication of the error, so that missing the beep is not critical to operation.

However, the increasing sophistication and quality of synthetic and digital speech technology has made it easier and more desirable for computer companies and applications software companies to consider incorporating more extensive use of sound into their products, including voice output. Where this sound and music is merely decoration, and is not necessary for the operation of the computer or program, no serious access problem is posed. Where important information content is contained in the audio portion of the software, the access issue becomes pressing for people who are deaf or who have severe hearing impairments. As computers and consumer products are slowly merging with each other, and with emergence of multi-media education, game and information systems, the use of sound and speech is going to escalate. The result is likely to be an ever-growing number of products which will be partially or substantially inaccessible to persons who are deaf or who have severe hearing impairments.

Proposed Solution Strategy

To address this problem, it is proposed that a "ShowSounds" capability be introduced within multi-media, computing, and information technologies. This ShowSounds capability would in some ways resemble closed captioning of television programs, but would also support more extensive sound annotation capabilities.

Like closed captioning, the ShowSounds capability would allow users to indicate whether they wanted to have sound annotation visible. For individuals who could hear, the ShowSounds feature would be entirely invisible. However, if an individual had a severe hearing impairment, or was in an environment where noise interfered with hearing, they could turn on the ShowSounds "switch" or setting. Once the ShowSounds was turned on, the audiovisual material would automatically provide visual annotation for all important auditory information.

More Diverse Visual Annotation

Since the computer-based information and multi-media systems have considerably more intelligence and graphic capabilities than television, the types of annotation that could be provided could also be more diverse. For example, with ShowSounds turned on, a program presenting information via speech would automatically begin showing captions as well. Another program which used a rising and falling tone to indicate information would simultaneously display a small scale with a rising and falling pointer to correspond to the tones. Beeps or other tones meant to draw one's attention back to the screen would be accompanied by a screen flash or other visual event substantial enough to catch one's attention if one were looking at the keyboard or elsewhere. In this fashion, video annotations could be tailored to best present the auditory information in a visual format.

System Support for ShowSounds Visual Annotation

In order to facilitate the implementation of visual annotation and to encourage the use of standard approaches, tools or utilities can be built directly into the operating systems of computers or information appliances. All of the modern operating systems have extensive toolboxes or libraries which application programs use for creating windows, dialog boxes, menus, etc. These toolboxes could be extended to also include tools for captioning, flashing sections of the screen, or other visual annotation techniques. Developers of applications/products which incorporate voice or information-carrying sounds could then easily add the visual annotation capabilities to their applications/products by making use of these built-in tools.

The basic system would also have to support some type of user- accessible ShowSounds "switch." In computers, this would typically show up in the control panel for the operating system, the same place where one adjusts the speaker volume, the sensitivity of the mouse, the keyboard repeat, etc. By having this ShowSounds switch located at the operating system level, an individual would be able to turn the switch on once when they sat down at the computer, and all programs, applications, and system functions using sounds would check the switch and present visual annotation of sound events.

As computers incorporate text-to-speech capabilities directly into their operating systems, an auto-captioning capability could be included. In this fashion, text sent to the computer's operating system to be spoken could be automatically displayed as a caption as well. This would relieve the application software of this task, and make the captioning feature work even with non-ShowSounds-aware programs. This auto-captioning feature should have a software over- ride that would allow the application software to prevent an item from being captioned. This would be useful in a number of instances: spelling tests (where children who can hear might turn it on, so that they could see how to spell the words being presented); situations where the text being read aloud is already present on the screen; and situations where the application program would like to provide shorter or differently worded captions. The application program would also be able to specify where on the screen the caption would appear, so that the caption could be positioned so as not to obscure important information on the screen.

As companies such as Apple, IBM and Microsoft begin developing multi- media control utilities, it will be important to build in the necessary tools to facilitate access by individuals who have hearing and other impairments.

Plan for Implementation

Implementation of this recommendation could be carried out in stages. In fact, it would need to be, since the later stages require built-in text-to-speech capabilities which are not a standard part of computer operating systems today.

The stages for implementation by operating system and base platform manufacturers would be:

  • Stage I: Implementation of ShowSounds Switch by Operating System Manufacturers

    1. Inclusion of a ShowSounds switch in the control settings for the operating system by operating system manufacturers;

    2. Implementation of visual events to correspond to any sounds created by the operating system;

  • Stage II: Support for ShowSounds by Applications Programs

    1. Provision of visual indication of any important sound events created by application program if ShowSounds is switched on;

  • Stage III: Provision of Sound Annotation Tools in Operating System

    1. Provision of ShowSounds closed-captioning tools for use by third-party developers; and

    2. Provision of auto-captioning capabilities in connection with any system-based voice utilities.

Application programs could begin to check for the ShowSounds switch and provide visual cues for any auditory events as soon as Stage 1 is completed. Application programs most likely to first make use of such a switch would be programs designed for education or designed specifically for the disability field. However, government legislation regarding computer access may encourage the use of the ShowSounds switch by business software vendors as they incorporate sounds into products which they would like to sell to the federal government.

Progress to Date

Some progress has already been made toward the goal of producing support for the ShowSounds capability across company and product lines.

  • Discussions are underway with Apple Computer Corporation regarding the inclusion of a ShowSounds switch as a part of their standard control panel for sounds in future versions of their operating system.

  • A ShowSounds feature (switch and screen flash or icon) has been incorporated into the AccessDOS software package, which is distributed IBM as a complement to its DOS operating system. AccessDOS provides several important disability access features for IBM PC and PS/2 computers running DOS. (In AccessDOS, the ShowSounds switch is currently tied to a feature which causes either a small note in the upper left-hand corner of the screen or full-screen flash whenever a sound of significant length is initiated by the computer.)

  • The ShowSounds feature with accompanying screen flash is also included in the next release of Access Utility (v3.0a) to be distributed by Microsoft for Windows=FC.

  • The ShowSounds concept is included in the White Paper prepared by the Trace Center and the Information Technology Foundation (ITF) (formerly the ADAPSO Foundation). The White Paper is the first step toward the development of a set of design guidelines for the application software industry. ITF is a non-profit foundation of the Information Technology Association of America, the trade association for most of the major application software companies in America. The guidelines are being developed in response to a request by industry for direct industry-usable information as to how software products can be designed to be more accessible to people with disabilities.

These efforts to develop the ShowSounds concept are also being coordinated with the Caption Center, a service of the WGBH Education Foundation. The Caption Center, through its Media Access Research and Development Office, is leading a multi-faceted effort to provide access to all types of media=AAtelevision, radio, print, live performance, theatrical, film, and other.


Initial efforts have begun toward the implementation and support for such a ShowSounds feature on a number of computer platforms. Much work is needed, however, to make both computer and information system vendors aware of the need for such a capability, and to build it into their next generation systems.


This work has been supported in part by Grant H029F80083-91 from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education, Apple Computer Corporation, IBM Corporation, and the Information Technology Foundation (ITF) of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) (formerly ADAPSO).

For more information, contact:
Gregg C. Vanderheiden, Ph.D.
Trace R&D Center
S-151 Waisman Center
1500 Highland Avenue
Madison, WI 53705-2280

Paper submitted for presentation at RESNA International Conference, June 6-11, 1992.

Effort involved in captioning a CD-ROM

The cost of captioning a CDROM is minimal only when compared to the cost of producing the CD-ROM game/educational software.

The programmer would need to provide additional functionality such as:

  1. A switch which would turn on captions or turn off captions:

    Such a switch would entail to expanding an array of parameters which would simply add the option to the program.

  2. Possible adjustments which would tailor the text (see #3) for various individuals. ie, speed of text display, size of font, fontstyle, etc.

  3. Code which displays the text on the screen. This portion would be the most difficult as it would require a overlaying "box" which would contain the text. The text itself might slowly scroll from left to right as the text is spoken, or it might be done in Karaoke style with a bouncing ball alighting atop the currently spoken word.

  4. The text is usually already in electronic form (for script purposes). I would suppose that most of the speech is input by several people holding microphones, reading from a prepared script. As a result, it would be easy to transfer such text to the CD.

    The text then, would need to be 'linked' to the actual spoken word. This is also dependent on #3, as if it is sentence by sentence, a link would need to be made to the beginning of each sentence. (eg: "You have won!" <-> <You have won!>)

Fortunately; creation of such functionality is a one-time process. This not only process includes creation of the paradigm which would be utilized for current and future projects, but the development of software writing practices which would incorporate such technology would need to be implemented on a management level as well.

(Contributed by Matt Staben at 11 Aug 1994.)

Last update date: 
2005 Nov 17