Further Accessibility: Closed Captioning of Services via WiFi
Further Accessibility: Closed Captioning of Services via WiFi

The technology in our pockets now makes it possible to provide live translation of speech to text at church.  The First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY experimented this fall with smartphones and tablets, in an expanded effort of accessibility for deaf and hearing-impaired congregants.  

Feedback from a deaf congregant has been very positive, and also we have received thanks from some congregants who sometimes miss a word or two when listening (and like to then see the text).  

How We Made It Happen

First we used the ministers’ iPhones and iPads, running an inexpensive iOS App called “Speechy”, paired with the Zoom business App for video conferencing ($149/year subscription for Pro version account to host the “meeting”).  High speed, reliable WiFi is needed to handle the tasks, we had that already in our worship space. Speechy uses an internet connection and the iOS device’s microphone to make spoken word into typed text. Then with Speechy running on the iPhone or iPad, the Zoom App was opened to start a meeting, and “screen” was chosen in the “share content” menu.  

The Zoom meeting ID was printed in the Order of Service, along with a “QR code” which congregants could scan with their smartphones.  If the congregants already had the free Zoom app, it would open and begin showing the words being broadcast, otherwise they were prompted to download the app.  Zoom works on most Android and iOS devices of the past six years, so most congregants with a smartphone can use that free App, and the church guest WiFi, without problems.  A donated iPad was put into service as a “loaner” for congregants who do not have a device compatible with Zoom.  As long as the old iPad was charged between services its battery lasted through the worship.

We soon found that Android had a better option, “Live Transcribe”.  This app was developed in cooperation with advice from folks at Gallaudet.  This uses advanced intelligence to automatically insert punctuation, and also displays small labels such as “piano”, “classical music”, “applause” when the microphone detects those portions of the service.  It is a free App in the Google Play store for older devices, and is built-in on newer (Pixel 3) devices.  With a loaned Android tablet, and a patch cord from the sound booth, our sound volunteers can set it up quickly and have it showing the screen’s translation of anything that comes through the microphones. Again this is “broadcast” as a Zoom meeting.

Equipment Needed

  • Free or low-cost Apps for Speech to Text:
    • If your host device is Apple iOS, Speechy (For a nominal cost in the App Store)
    •  If your host device is Android, Live Transcribe (Free).
  • Subscription account for hosting time-unlimited meetings in the Zoom App ($149/yr)
  • Tablet or Smartphone to “host”: (donation of older device or purchased)
    • Android requires system 5.0 and up to run Live Transcribe
    • Apple iOS requires iOS 10.0 or later to run Speechy
    • (Zoom works with the above, and older versions)
  • Patch cord to go from the church sound board to the Android or Apple host device.
  • WiFi for the “broadcast” and also open to congregants to receive.
  • Smartphone or Tablet as a Sunday Morning “Loaner” with Zoom app loaded (Minimum iOS 7.0, Android 4.1).

Lessons Learned

  • One congregant forgot we had free WiFi at church, and ate up some cell phone data by mistake.
  • The “host” phone can get hot, as this uses lots of battery, and needs to be fully charged (or plugged into an outlet) to last through two services. Do not put this in the minister’s pocket, because of the heat and also because sound gets muffled and so degrades accuracy.
  • No all congregants are tech-savvy. Some may need assistance to get Zoom working as they arrive, so have volunteers on hand.
  • Folks should "refuse" Zoom access to their microphone and camera when they join the video call, otherwise they show up to others in the “meeting”.
  • Folks should be reminded to “Leave Meeting” at the end of worship, and quit Zoom.

About the Author

  • Rev. Bob Renjilian has specialized credentials as an Interim Minister, and as a Minister of Religious Education, along with Parish Ministry experience in all sizes of churches.

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.

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