Speech to Text
Captionists with LSU Disability Services work with student Karoline Hernandez in a French 1001 class. The captionists use laptop computers with specialized software to caption in real-time what gets said in class.

LSU Disability Services Offers One of Nation’s Leading Programs for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students


College classes are supposed to be hard. 

Lectures, term papers, abstracts, tons of reading material and discussions, discussions, discussions. 

But imagine how much more difficult they can be when you are deaf.

LSU is one of the nation’s leaders in providing services to deaf and hard of hearing students, including both real-time captioning services and sign language interpreting. LSU Disability Services is home to one of the largest C-Print real-time captioning programs in the United States, behind only the software’s developer, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“We typically have around 25 students per semester that we work with,” said Jennifer Bourgeois, the program’s coordinator.

Many of those students utilize the university’s real-time captioning services. A captionist accompanies the student to their classes and uses a laptop computer with the specialized software to caption in real-time what gets said in class. The C-Print software translates a short-hand typing system from the captionist into full sentences for the student.

Alternatively, some students choose to employ sign-language interpreters, who translate lectures or what is said in classes into American Sign Language.  Disability Services also provides interpreters or captionists for all university functions upon request such as commencement ceremonies, plays and lectures.

The program’s success recently took Bourgeois to the University of Tennessee, where she was taped for an upcoming training seminar on speech-to-text technology for use nationally at the secondary and postsecondary level. The seminar is being sponsored by the Postsecondary Education Programs Network, or PEPNet, which provides resources and expertise that enhance educational opportunities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. LSU’s Disability Services serves as one of the national outreach centers for PEPNet, which is sponsored by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs.

“Our biggest challenge is just the logistics of making sure we have captionists or interpreters in every class where services are required,” said Bourgeois. “We have to accommodate our students’ schedules, which means our people have to be able to get around campus quickly sometimes in between classes.”

For the captionists themselves, each class can present its own unique challenge, such as foreign language classes. 

“The student was under the impression that I knew French,” said captionist Gwen Cacioppo. “You just have to try and type out the words phonetically as best that you can. You and the student find a way to adapt to the way the instructor teaches.”

“I don’t have to understand the subject matter technically, if the professor is a good, clear speaker,” added Dawn Couvillion. “Occasionally, I may ask a professor to repeat themselves. But usually if we don’t understand what was said, other students don’t as well.”

Discussion classes, where students will add their own thoughts and opinions in addition to the professor, are also challenging. 

“For those, we just try to indicate who is speaking as best as we can, and we can add cues to the transcripts, such as ‘reading a book’ or ‘writing on the board,” said Couvillion.

Captionists undergo several months of training, and most have previous experience in working with the deaf and hard of hearing communities.  The C-Print software allows for constant expanding of the shorthand words that it recognizes.

But the rewards can be almost an education in and of itself for the captionists.

“I just love it,” said Cacioppo. “I love being in the classroom. And it’s a change of pace every semester, you’re never locked into any one thing, and you can learn along with the student.”

“I actually once had a teacher jokingly tell me, ‘if I’m out, you can just teach the class,’ because I’d been through it several times with different students,” said Couvillion.

For the students, the services can be not only a way to get through college, but an inspiration for what to do after it. Rebecca Jesgar Reed, a 2005 graduate in education, came to LSU as a student with a substantial hearing loss, worked as a student worker in the disability services office and is now a teacher at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, just a few miles from LSU’s campus.

“I actually came to LSU for the program,” said Reed, a native of St. Louis. “When I showed up at LSU, I didn’t even know sign language. They taught me how to sign.”

Another former student, James Landry, called the program a godsend. 

“Jennifer actually came to me,” he laughed. “She kept up with me in my classes, and she kept on me to stick with the service. It really kept me studying in classes.”  A 2004 graduate, Landry now works for the LSU Athletic Department as a facilities manager.

“The people here are wonderful,” said Karoline Hernandez, a current student in the program, majoring in German Literature. “This program has really kept me going.”

For more information on LSU Disability Services, visit www.lsu.edu/disability, and for more information on PEPNet, visit www.pepnet.org.

Billy Gomila | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations
July 2009