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Article by Bridget Shea - 1993
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Captioning Planetarium Programs for the Hearing Impaired

Bridget M. Shea, Davis Planetarium
Maryland Science Center
601 Light Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230

Planetariums are unique settings that open the wonders of the universe to many people. Unfortunately, not everyone can enjoy the star-filled sky or the astronomy programs that are available in most planetariums. With heightened awareness of the needs of the handicapped, we at the Davis Planetarium have made changes to accommodate people with many different disabilities.

The Davis Planetarium in the Maryland Science Center, Baltimore, Maryland, in conjunction with the Greater Baltimore Parents' Association for Hearing Impaired Children, a part of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, received a grant from the Association of Science Technology Centers (ASTC) to develop a captioning system in the Davis Planetarium. This system was installed in June, 1988.

The hearing impaired group is far-reaching including the deaf, senior citizens and many people whose hearing has been damaged by loud environments. Many hearing impaired people are not totally deaf, but rather have difficulty hearing speech above other background noises.

Choosing a system required meeting certain guidelines. The initial equipment, evaluation and production of the captions had to be relatively inexpensive. The equipment had to be easy to use and not easily seen from the theater seats. It had to be programmable and compatible with the AVL Eagle automation system in the theater. The captions had to be big enough to read from the farthest seats and be close to the dome without interfering with visuals.

After reviewing several options including video, LED display boards and conventional slides, it was decided that a set of two dissolving slide projectors would be the simplest method for providing the captions. The dissolves could be programmed right into the show automation controls. Turning the captioning system on and off is as simple as pressing the on/off switch on the Dove unit which controls the projectors. It was also the least expensive option.

3 SAV Kodak Projectors (with backup) $1,860

3 Lenses (with backup) $450

Dissolve/Dove unit (used) $400

Hardware & Cable $75

Photographic Supplies $50

Evaluation and opening reception $420

Total $3,255

The projectors are mounted in the back of the theater in the projection gallery just below the dome. To better fit into the available space, the projectors face each other and the captions reflect off mirrors. The captions are then projected onto the front wall just below the dome. There is dark, low-nap carpet on this wall and the carpet makes an acceptable projection surface. It seems to hold down some of the light scattering. The captions can be seen from most seats, even with the Minolta star projector at its highest point, and they are close enough to the dome to make reading the captions and looking at the visuals possible. The slides are simple Kodalith copies of laser printed text with a Helvetica 14 bold font. Each slide contains no more than four lines with a maximum of 40 characters per line.

We worked with a person experienced in writing captions for scripts. She was able to help simplify the more complex terms and explanations in the script, as well as make us aware of vocabulary limitations of those who have learned the language without being able to hear. Through our experience in captioning planetarium programs, we have discovered that it is best to keep one idea per slide and to pace the show in such a way as to allow time for reading the captions and looking at visuals. As a result, our program scripts have become shorter with simpler language.

The first program we captioned, "Destination Universe: Our Future in Space," was a longer program, and we were not able to fully caption all the ideas due to the limited number of available slides. Through the evaluation of the captions, we learned that those who could hear something but were not able to understand the words were frustrated. They could hear someone talking but there were no captions to read. Some hearing impaired people wanted the captions projected on the dome with the visuals. However, once they understood the equipment involved and the format of the presentation, they felt having the captions on the front wall was the best compromise.

We were concerned about the reaction from hearing visitors and knowing if they found the captions distracting. Evaluation of the captions involved a survey conducted at the opening reception for members of the hearing impaired community and after public shows. The overall response from the hearing impaired group was positive but pointed out the limitations discussed earlier. The positive feedback we received from the hearing visitors indicated that the system is also beneficial to them. The hearing visitors can read information they have missed and most of those surveyed felt that it was a good program.

Currently, three out of eight daily weekend and summer shows are regularly captioned. If someone requests another showtime with captions, it is easy to do. We market the captioned programs in the Maryland Science Center's Visitor Guide, Member News and press releases. When the system was first installed, there was media interest. The response has not been overwhelming, although it has been much appreciated by those who have needed the captions. We need to provide more marketing to inform key groups about the captioned shows.

The time and expense to caption each new production is minimal compared to the benefit provided to our visitors. It has been challenging and worthwhile updating our theater to include captioning for the hearing impaired so they too may explore the Universe.

Reproduced from the Planetarian, Vol. 23, #3, September 1993. Copyright 1993 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.

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