Progress over Perfection as Technology Brings Excitement

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By Sheila C. Serup, MBA

As the year 2023 unfolds, I wish to share my reflections on technology and growing mindsets that bring great joy and excitement.

It is encouraging to see how innovation and development of new technology push best practices and policies in education, transportation, health, and employment fields to expand accessibility and inclusion.

An example of this can be found in the field of post-secondary education. A shift is underway to integrate, as a standard, accessibility features such as captions and recordings in university course materials.

After Winter 2023 classes began, my daughter informed me that one of her university professors now provides all students after each class, the PowerPoint slides presented in class with the recording and transcript of auto captions. The professor theorized that by recording the lecture, the students would be freed from taking notes and be actively engaged in the class discussions and learnings.

Her university, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, is normalizing the provision of lecture slides, recordings and captioning for all students. While some courses on design are focused on accessibility and are openly conscious of the need to consider accessibility at the design planning stage, the university is leading by example to integrate and normalize accessibility features and tools in all courses.

This movement towards a mainstream inclusion of these features helps to create a level playing field for students with invisible disabilities. The awareness it creates among all students is a step towards removing barriers. Importantly it ensures all students have an equitable experience of learning.

Students with hearing loss or an invisible disability are becoming empowered to choose from the accessibility features being provided, instead of the opposite whereby they may need to self-identify and advocate for accessibility functions and tools.

With accessibility functionality built into classroom materials, work and study spaces, as well as other public buildings, individuals with invisible disabilities are able to focus on learning and working and thus are naturally more included in the fabric of society.

Many other universities offer varying degrees of accessibility features, and at some, the onus is still on students with disabilities to request and advocate for services. And in some instances, CHHA networks may need to advocate on behalf of students to ensure access to accurate information. CHHA-Calgary is engaged with real time captioners who provide captioning for students in specialized fields such as health care to ensure students receive accurate captions during lectures.

 The Arrival of Quiet Airports

Another exciting change I’ve noticed is the movement towards quiet airports. Yes, silent airports which no longer broadcast public announcements, but instead push notifications and individualized messages to passengers via text or email.

Public announcements are often accompanied by an echo in expansive airports and are usually spoken rapidly so travellers with hearing loss find themselves further at a loss to understand.

Air travel is fraught these days with delays, gate changes, cancellations, and weather woes. So being able to receive messages by text or email on digital devices is quite empowering. When booking your flight, be sure to include your contact details for the devices you travel with, such as cell phone numbers or email addresses.

Passengers still need to be vigilant about their own flight times. Airports around the world that are now quiet include those in major cities such as Amsterdam, London City, Barcelona, Cancun, San Francisco, and Venice among others.  The San Francisco airport, for example, was able to reduce onsite noise in the terminal by more than 40 per cent. Canadians with hearing loss can advocate for their local airports to become quiet airports and use technology to level the playing field for all travellers.

Join Virtual Lunch Debate for World Hearing Day

Early birds who are up at the crack of dawn may be interested in attending the World Health Organization’s virtual lunch debate on March 1st on ear and hearing care for all. This virtual meeting is an opportunity to learn how to avoid the consequences of untreated hearing loss, and how we can play a role in making ear and hearing care a reality for all in Canada.

March 1, 2023 at 12:30 to 14:30 pm (Central European Time) or 6:30 a.m. Ottawa time.

Participation is free but registration is required:

Information about World Hearing Day will be included in CHHA’s iListen newsletter at the end of February. Stay tuned.

What Bird is Singing?

One of my lifelong hobbies is the observation of birdlife. The lifecycle of migrating and breeding birds has fascinated me since I was young. Until now, my observations have solely focused on the physical attributes, movements, seasonal patterns and ranges.

The Cornell Ornithology Lab’s e-Bird checklist, accessible on my iPhone, provides rich detail and data on bird sightings, ranges, and uniqueness. The e-checklist complements regional bird identification books that I use. It also provides real-time data and information on the birds I’m observing in the field and allows me to correlate my sightings with others in the field. Studying their physical attributes and behaviours brings a little thrill each time, as I learn something new.

I have always wondered how experienced observers can identify a myriad of bird species by hearing their calls, songs, and guttural sounds. Through consistent practice of listening, I’ve been able to discern and identify the sounds of birds in the lower frequencies.

On a Global Bird Day several years ago, I could hear the incessant sound of a Downy woodpecker above me, but I could not hone in on its location. I employed the strategy of swivelling my head with my hearing aids to narrow down the location, to figure out if it was west, east, south or north of me, but the quick drumming of its beak seemed to echo back from the trees. I could not pinpoint the noisy woodpecker.

Suddenly a runner came bounding along the trail, and in a startled voice, asked: “What is that noise?” I explained it was a Downy woodpecker and he quickly learned I was having difficulty detecting it. He stopped for a few seconds and, like a compass needle pointing north, his arm and forefinger swung up and aimed right at it. It was above my left shoulder, midway up a tall tree. With his excellent hearing, he had zeroed in on it right away.

I identified the woodpecker and the runner and learned something new, and soon we were on our own paths. From that experience, I learned to ask others for assistance in locating a bird I could hear or for their description of the bird call that may have not been clear to me.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to hear the tremendous musicality of diverse songbirds. Last year, the Cornell Lab expanded its Merlin bird identification app to include sound identification. This app, now available free to download on an iPhone, can identify sounds of up to 400 species in Canada and the USA.

For me, it has unlocked a world of bird sounds.

Common Yellowthroat: Credit: Brad Imhoff/Lab of Ornithology

The functionality of the app is based on using sounds as images.  The breakthrough came when researchers, including Merlin lead researcher Grant Van Horn, began treating the sounds as images and applying new and powerful image classification algorithms like the ones that already power Merlin’s Photo ID feature.

“Each sound recording a user makes gets converted from a waveform to a spectrogram – a way to visualize the amplitude [volume], frequency [pitch] and duration of the sound,” Van Horn said. “So just like Merlin can identify a picture of a bird, it can now use this picture of a bird’s sound to make an ID.”

As I’m observing a bird through my binoculars and can see its beak moving as in song, I can now turn on the sound app to confirm my identification. The spectrogram shows images of the song as a pattern, and sometimes, if I’m lucky I can discernably hear the bird singing as I’m watching the spectrogram show the pattern of the volume, pitch, and duration.

Merlin also records and saves the sounds on my cell phone.

“The Merlin app really unlocks a whole new world of sound,” said the Cornell Lab’s Jessie Barry, whose team led the project. “It helps everyone solve the mystery birds they’re hearing around them, and the technology that powers Merlin sound identification can also be used for research and conservation, opening up new possibilities for the way scientists can monitor, study and protect birds.”

Merlin sound ID marks a great leap forward in the ability for people to connect with and understand the sounds of the natural world around them, Barry said.

Sometimes when I am focused on a specific single species, the app will record and show the spectrogram of multiple other birds in the vicinity. This functionality has opened my world of observation as I become aware of other birds around me that I may not necessarily be able to spot quickly or hear.

This technology is exciting because it adds a new dimension to one of my favourite activities that were never available before.

While I may not be able to fully hear with my powerful aids the beautiful musicality of a bird song, the Merlin sound app has opened a door for me to experience the sounds in a different but unique way.

I am looking forward to using it soon in the upcoming Audubon Great Backyard Bird Count, Friday, Feb 17 through to Monday, Feb 20, 2023. Details at

For details, visit: “What bird is singing? Merlin Bird ID app offers instant answers.”

Sheila can be reached at