Civic engagement just became easier for hearing-impaired Huntington residents. The town announced the debut of real-time closed captioning of town board, planning board and zoning board appeals meetings for viewing on the town’s website and government access television channel.
“This is an important expansion of both the town’s transparency of government actions and its ability to better serve the disabled community,” said Councilwoman Joan Cergol, who initiated in early 2018 live-streaming of the meetings.
“As a member of Huntington’s Citizens Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities, I want to thank Councilwoman Cergol and her staff for meeting with us and quickly acting on the committee’s suggestion to add closed captioning to town meeting videos,” said committee member Len Urban. “People like myself with a hearing loss depend on closed captioning to enjoy television, movies and also to keep informed. We can now follow the comments, conversations and debates at Town Hall easily at home without the frustrations of not hearing clearly.”
When Cergol met with the committee, committee members cited two actions they wanted the town to pursue: expanding HART bus paratransit service to take residents to doctor’s appointments at two medical facilities on the east side of Commack Road, and adding closed captioning to the town meeting broadcasts.
Cergol contacted the town’s Department of Transportation, which agreed to a pilot program expanding the HART paratransit service to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center at 650 Commack Road, Commack and to both the St. Catherine and St. Charles Health and Wellness Center and Stony Brook Advanced Specialty Care at 500 Commack Road.
The process that led to closed captioning was more involved. A search of other municipalities that provided closed captioning found that some used a paid service in which people listened to the meetings and added the captions, not necessarily in real time.
The town’s Information Technology Department, however, said it preferred to seek a piece of speech-to-text equipment that would be more cost-effective and allow instantaneous translations. The issues centered on both cost and accuracy. Cergol’s staff began contacting governments throughout the United States, which led to conversations with officials in Austin, Texas, whose captions appeared to meet the accuracy test. They identified the equipment they used and the manufacturer — a company, as it turned out, headquartered in Farmingdale.
“I’m proud to say our nationwide search led us right back to Long Island,” Cergol said.
Cergol’s staff passed that information on to the Information Technology Department, which arranged to borrow the device for a test. When that test met the town’s standards and was then favorably reviewed by a hearing-impaired member of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee, the decision was made to purchase the equipment, at no cost to taxpayers. Cergol tapped the franchise fees paid to the town by Altice and Verizon to fund the equipment purchase and associated monthly usage fees.
“I want to thank Citizens Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities member Len Urban for beta-testing the closed captioning technology on behalf of the town’s hearing-impaired community, and committee chair Marianne Iannaccone and her committee members for their very important role in sensitizing us to the barriers they confront so we can do all we can to remove them,” concluded Cergol.
The meetings can be viewed on the town’s government access channels, Optimum Channel 18 and FiOS Channel 38, or on the town’s website at www.huntingtonny.gov/meetings.