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A summary of the most frequent or important questions received by NDC's help team. For more information and tips during the COVID-19 crisis, visit nationaldeafcenter.org/covid19

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What strategies are available for deafblind students using interpreters remotely?

It is important to remember that there are varying levels of combined hearing and vision loss for deafblind students. Interpreters (tactile/protactile/low vision) and Support Service Providers (SSP) are considered essential workers, but the safety of the interpreter, SSP and deafblind student should always be a priority. Some interpreters and SSPs will continue to work using protective gear if everyone feels comfortable in doing so. The DeafBlind Interpreting National Training and Resource Center (DBI) discusses this in their COVID-19 statement. Some of the tips below are also from the New York Deaf Blind Collaborative.

Technology options:

  • Allow time for trial and error with technology in advance. Find what works best for the student and the interpreter. Multiple screens or windows may be needed to view the information and interpreter at the same time. When possible, do a test run of things before to make sure the set-up works.

  • Some videophones allow the deafblind student to zoom in to see the remote interpreter. If interpreters have access to a videophone, this would be a good method in providing remote interpreting.

  • Webcams may have the option to zoom in on the user. Make sure auto-focus is turned off, otherwise the video will become blurry when the interpreter moves on camera.

  • Other low vision aids may be used (e.g., digital magnifiers, smartphone apps, and tablet cameras with zoom in capabilities) to increase visual access on the screen.

For the remote interpreter:

  • Communicate in advance how the student can contact the interpreter if issues arise.

  • Ensure the interpreter's background is dark (e.g., black or dark blue) and solid with no patterns. Interpreters should wear solid, contrasting color to their skin tone.  Wear shirts that are ¾ sleeve or longer, covering up to the neck.

  • Pace the sign language production, slow down fingerspelling and keep sign placement within a smaller frame.  

  • Lighting is important! The interpreter should be illuminated from the front, without glare.

  • If tactile interpreters are needed, the interpreter could work remotely with the support person available in the home.

Additional resources:

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What accommodations should be considered when a deafblind student’s class is moved online?

It is important to remember that there are varying levels of combined hearing and vision loss for deafblind students. When determining appropriate accommodations for virtual meetings or classes, it is vital that the deafblind student is included in the discussion. The U.S. Department of Education has also issued guidance on ensuring continuation of services in alternative communication formats (K-12 and postsecondary).  

  • If the student utilizes interpreting services, refer to,  “What strategies are available for deafblind students using interpreters?” for information on remote interpreting for deafblind students.

  • If the student uses braille, it is possible to provide remote speech-to-text if the student has a refreshable braille display that plugs into their computer.

  • If the student uses screen reader software (e.g. JAWS, ZoomText, NVDA) at school, ensure the student has access to the software at home. There are some free software versions available.

  • If the student uses a hearing assistive device, be sure they are able to connect and use the audio options available.

  • If the student uses a portable magnifier or CCTV, allow the student to continue to use it at home. Some vendors will allow schools to rent equipment that can be sent directly to the student’s home.

  • Allow the student to adjust font size, text, and background colors if using text-based chats. If remote speech-to-text services are being provided, make sure the output is set to the student’s preferences.

  • Provide accessible reading materials in the student’s preferred format. For example, make sure PDFs or other attachments are accessible for screen readers. Consider sending the student plain text documents. Add alternative text or image descriptions to pictures.

  • Ensure the Learning Management System (LMS, e.g. Canvas, Blackboard, Google Classroom) are accessible to deafblind students.  If not, identify which LMS discussion boards are accessible. Consider alternative approaches, such as group email with threads.

  • Consider low-tech options, such as scanning and emailing documents between the teacher and student, or read material out loud over the phone.

Additional resources:

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Can students request a change of accommodations for classes being provided online (that were previously face to face)?

There is no one-size-fits-all for each student or each class, and this applies especially when moving to online classes.  NDC’s Equitable Access Guide, Section 3 states, “The choice of the auxiliary aid is made on a case-by-case basis...Institutions are to consult with the person and take into account his or her usual or preferred method of communication.” What worked for in-person classrooms may not be equally effective in online classes.  
It is important to be flexible, consider a trial-and-error approach to identify what works best for the student, and investigate options depending on the method of instruction (e.g., live online video lecture, pre-recorded video lectures, group discussion using video vs. text chat, etc.).

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Can remote speech-to-text services replace live interpreters for deaf students for online lectures and meetings?

Substituting an accommodation for another (e.g., remote speech-to-text services for interpreting services), not requested by the student may inhibit the student’s ability to access the course. The U.S. Department of Justice regulations emphasize important considerations when deciding effective communication accommodations and to take the student’s preference into account. 

The goal is to ensure the deaf student is able to access the course and also effectively participate and communicate with others. For example, if the student requests and prefers to communicate using sign language, an interpreter should be provided. Replacing interpreters with alternative methods may not be effective and could cause additional barriers for the deaf student to effectively participate.

Schools should continue providing remote interpreting services for synchronous courses, or arrange for access for asynchronous courses using interpreters on video for audio portions. Efforts to continue using the same staff or contracted interpreters is important for consistency purposes. For additional information on providing remote access services, please see:

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How can we accommodate students using speech-to-text or interpreting services during online tutoring sessions?

For group tutoring sessions, check with the deaf student to see what accommodations would be most effective in this type of setting.  If they request speech-to-text or interpreting services, coordinate these services the same way you would for any online appointment.

  • Remind students they should continue to follow the same procedures to request accommodations.

  • Discuss what options are available for the student, tutor and service provider to get connected on the platform being used.

  • Have a back-up plan or a second option to connect virtually (e.g., logging onto a different platform).

  • For one-on-one tutoring situations, consider using interactive approaches (e.g., Google Docs) to support visual support with chat features in one screen to discuss back and forth.

For more information:
Remote Access Services
Tutoring Deaf Students

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Can I use the “captions” feature or auto-captions during live online video rooms or for recorded videos?

Most live conferencing and video production platforms (e.g., Zoom, YouTube, Streamer, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams) claim to have live captioning capabilities.

While auto-caption software accuracy has made some advancements in recent years, often this type of transcription may not have proper punctuation, speaker identification, or other audio descriptions to provide adequate access. Accuracy of auto-captions also relies on the speaker’s use of a high-quality microphone and enunciation of words (i.e., speaking clearly and at a normal pace without an accent). This will also be problematic when multiple individuals are speaking without the use of microphones.

In the rush in providing online accessibility, consider how the student will receive information on their end. If the student spends a considerable amount of time trying to follow inaccurate auto captions, this becomes a barrier to accessing the information being taught.

For more information:
NDC’s Why Captions Provide Equal Access
YouTube’s Automatic Captions Prove Insufficient for ADA Compliance
Are Automatic Captions WCAG, ADA or 508 Compliant?

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How do you pin the interpreter or live-stream captioning window across different video conferencing platforms (e.g., Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, etc)?

There are a number of video conferencing platforms available (WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting), and each has its own unique features and limitations.

  • Review online instructions offered by the platform for video layout options and any specific settings for interpreters/speech-to-text professionals.

  • Contact the platform’s technical support specialists or knowledge base.

  • Work with your IT department on integrations or other solutions.

Note: Blackboard integrates with Zoom. D2L/Brightspace can integrate with Microsoft Teams, Bongo, or Zoom.

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Can Video Relay Services (VRS) be used in place of Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) services for live-streamed online courses?

VRS and VRI may provide similar services but their purposes are very different. VRS is governed by the FCC and is to ensure telecommunication, such as phone calls, are made accessible for deaf individuals. VRI is used as an option for providing interpreting services if an in-person interpreter is not available.

VRS should also not be used in lieu of VRI interpreters in live, online classes for the following reasons:

  • Consistency cannot be maintained. Every time a deaf individual places a call through VRS they get a different interpreter from anywhere in the country.

  • ASL has regional dialects and inconsistent specialized vocabulary, especially in academic subjects.

  • VRS interpreters do not have prior knowledge or advance preparation of course content and who is involved in discussions to identify speakers.

  • The burden is on the deaf student to manage communication because VRS interpreters do not have visual access to the online classroom and only rely on phone call audio.

  • Utilizing VRS for classes may cause longer queue times, especially deaf people trying to navigate the crisis and essential activities from home. There is no guarantee a VRS interpreter would even be available at the scheduled time of class.

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How can I create transcripts for captioning media from auto-captions?

While using auto-captions for live online classes is not accessible (see Can I use the “captions” feature or auto-captions during live online video rooms or for recorded videos?), auto-caption transcripts CAN be used in the process of post-production captioning for videos. For more information on how to edit auto-captions for captioning videos, please see How Do You Create Accessible Videos? from the National Center on Accessible Education Materials.

For more information on accurate captions, please see the Described and Captioned Media Program’s (DCMP) Captioning Key.

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How can I add live-stream captioning within online meetings or Learning Management Systems (LMS) platforms, such as Canvas, Blackboard, or Zoom?

Most online conferencing or Learning Management Systems (LMS) have tutorials in their knowledge base/support sites explaining how to connect live captioning. Refer to the following direct links. If you need additional support, contact your IT department.

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How can we add sign language interpreters in “live” online courses?

Give the remote interpreter(s) access to the video platform service (e.g., Zoom or GoToMeetings) or LMS (e.g., Canvas or Blackboard). Ensure that students are aware of and have enabled the features to choose how the videos appear on screen (gallery, side-by-side, etc.), that they have any necessary permissions, and that they know how to set up their preferences to view the interpreter and instructor.

If for any reason the interpreter is not able to login to the preferred LMS/online course platform, consider a multi-platform approach. For example, the student can be logged into LMS (e.g. Canvas or Blackboard in one window and an interpreter on an online video platform (e.g., Zoom, FaceTime or other video service).

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How should schools/institutions utilize staff interpreting and speech-to-text providers when transitioning from in-person to online classes?

Staff, hourly and contracted service providers (interpreting and speech-to-text) should continue to provide services remotely. This ensures consistency with services for the student. Work with service providers to ensure they have:

  • Access to high-speed internet.

  • A private space to work from (e.g., some schools are allowing service providers to use offices on campus as long as they observe self-quarantine protocols).

  • Appropriate equipment, such as headphones with a microphone and a computer with webcam and any necessary software.

  • Access to LMS or live video platforms.

  • The student and instructor’s contact information in case of technical troubleshooting.

Staff and hourly providers can also assist with: 

  • Captioning media for online courses (or prepare a transcript).

  • Provide interpreting for pre-recorded lectures.

  • Be available remotely for online tutoring, meetings or online school activities unrelated to the classroom.  

Additional information:

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Where can I find captioned media vendors and what should I look for?

Creating Offline Captions includes some tips and strategies in ensuring accurate captions are obtained. If you choose to outsource your media for captioning, the following links provide some resources: