Northampton lands grant for assisted listening devices in buildings

  • Rodney Kunath at his home in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM

Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2021 3:49:51 PM

NORTHAMPTON — For years, city resident Rodney Kunath has wanted Northampton to close caption its public meetings. 

“In the City Council meetings, there should be a screen showing closed captions,” Kunath said on Tuesday as he sat in his living room wearing a Clarke School baseball hat.

Kunath, who is deaf, is a member of the city’s Disability Commission and graduated in 1958 from what was then called the Clarke School for the Deaf. He moved back to the city in 1985.

The city recently got a grant that aims to address Kunath’s concerns and make meetings more accessible for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Last week, the city announced it received a $95,710 grant from the Massachusetts Office on Disabilities to use for assisted listening devices in the City Hall Hearing Room, City Council Chambers, and the Senior Center Great Room.

“Assisted listening systems will provide enhanced sound for all, and accommodations for those with hearing loss and impairments,” Mayor David J. Narkewicz wrote in a statement announcing the grant. The Disability Commission had recommended the changes in a report to the city. 

The city’s Director of Planning and Sustainability Wayne Feiden said he has requested quotes from vendors for systems such as wireless microphones, a feed for automated closed captioning, and an audio induction loop that would improve the sound for those who use hearing aids with telecoils. 

“What we are looking at is artificial intelligence closed captioning,” Feiden wrote in an email. “Currently, such systems have a 60+% recognition, with that number rising as AI gets better and errors usually being close enough to be understandable. Human intervention for closed captioning requires additional resources and will probably only be used when there are specific needs. Our focus (is) in the hardware, since that is what our funding is for and has a decade or longer life span.  The software will evolve, getting dramatically better over time.”

Kunath said he was happy to find out about the grant.

“More money should go for improved closed captioning,” he said.“(I) hope future improvements can be made. It is worth it.”

Kunath has long had frustrations with closed captioning of local TV programs, which he advocated for over several decades, he said.

“It is important for the deaf, hearing impaired, veterans and elderly to have access to follow the local programs,” he said. 

Other accessibility improvements are coming to the city. The mayor also recently announced that the city received a $15,000 grant to look at how to make the Connecticut River Greenway more accessible, “especially to the new beach there that formed just a few years ago,” according to the announcement. The grant came from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com. 




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