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Got tech?
Innovations are providing unprecedented access for deaf and hard-of-hearing people

Adrean Mangiardi

RIT film major Adrean Mangiardi uses two cochlear implants to help him localize sound, especially while he’s working. Here, he films interpreting student and actress Gabrielle Weiler.

Mark Benjamin, NTID

From cochlear implants to videophones to multimedia classrooms, technology is transforming the landscape at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

“Technology has played a huge role in our success of providing unprecedented access,” says T. Alan Hurwitz, RIT vice president and dean of NTID. “Our wide-eyed freshmen arrive on campus, exposed for the first time to the latest technologies throughout campus and in their dorms that deflate many of the barriers they’ve experienced before coming to NTID.”

Technology has been part of NTID since the college was created by act of Congress 40 years ago to provide the nation’s deaf people with opportunities to acquire advanced skills in technological fields. Today, students, faculty and staff at
RIT use the latest technology to learn and teach technology.

RIT’s 1,100 deaf and hard-of-hearing students have access to interpreters, note takers, tutors, and Interpretype machines that allow instant communication between people with and without hearing loss. A speech-to-text transcription called C-print provides translation of spoken English. Developed originally by NTID researchers, C-Print can be found nationally not only in educational settings, but in business meetings and workshops involving people who are deaf or hard of hearing, have visual impairments or learning disabilities.

In addition, onsite audiologists and speech-language pathologists provide services and new technology related to hearing and hearing aids, assistive devices, and cochlear implant services.

Twice as good?
As one of the 300 cochlear implant centers across the nation that provide services such as consultations, evaluations, fittings and speech therapy, NTID boasts the largest population of people with cochlear implants in one place. Nearly 180 students, faculty and staff have them, and that number is expected to
rise steadily, especially among children between the ages of 1 and 5.

A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device that stimulates the inner ear with electrical signals to the auditory nerve, which then sends signals to the brain where they’re translated into sounds. Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sound, cochlear implants compensate for damaged or non-working parts of the inner ear.

The highly charged controversy about whether to get one and at what age has calmed to a general acceptance of individual choice. Now, a very small but growing percentage of the 90,000 people worldwide who have a cochlear implant are getting a second implant in their other ear.

Adrean Mangiardi, a 25-year-old film major, is one of three RIT students with two implants. He got the first in his right ear when he was 15, and his second this spring.

“When I went through the mapping process the first time [fine tuning after the surgery to determine individual’s threshold and comfort], everything I sensed in my right side felt like electricity pulsating through my cochlear – a strange feeling,” Mangiardi explains.

“Success is extremely individual, and depends on many different factors,” notes NTID audiologist and cochlear implant expert Catherine Clark, who has been working with people with cochlear implants for more than 20 years. “Some people who have never heard running water or birds chirping and now hear them may feel their implant is highly successful, while others may measure success by having the ability to use the phone. And, it could take up to a year or more to realize all the advantages of an implant.”

Mangiardi, who was raised in Allentown, Pa., wasn’t satisfied with just one. Although he still suffers from a little dizziness, he says the benefits far outweigh any minor side effects.

“I am able to localize sounds through a large group of people talking over each other,” he explains. “One time I was focusing on playing pool in the basement of Phi Delta Theta and one of my friends called out to me. I looked straight at him way out in the back through all my friends. I couldn’t believe that I heard him. Others also noticed that I understood them without reading their lips.

“I cannot wait to work in the professional moviemaking business,” he says. “Having bilateral implants will not only help me achieve my goal in filmmaking, but also improve my life on a daily basis with my friends and family.”

Many improvements have been made to CI’s, like water resistant processors tolerant to perspiration, multiple microphones to help determine directionality, and even hybrid cochlear implants.

“Hybrid CI’s combine hearing aid technology with cochlear implant technology, and are worn on the same ear,” Clark explains. “The hearing aid provides low frequency acoustic stimulation, while the cochlear implant provides high frequency electrical stimulation. This technology is another indication of how the cochlear implant candidacy criteria is expanding.”

Learning the hi-tech way
Classrooms at NTID are taking on a new look and faculty is giving rave reviews.

Each of the 10 updated rooms feature a new computer with access to the Internet, a videophone, video projection, DVD/VCR, updated visualizers, white boards spanning 24 feet (some with “smart-board” display, write and print capabilities), updated FM systems for assistive devices, speakers with surround sound, sound boards on the wall for acoustical balance, and a separate monitor for those with special visual needs.

“Previously, the student with visual needs would have to wait to receive large-text notes from the class,” says Stephen Campbell, NTID’s Technology Support Services director, who plans to update 12 more classrooms. “Now, the student can actively participate.”

NTID professor Sharon Webster uses a wide assortment of technology in one of the updated classrooms in the LBJ building. The new devices offer more visual cues to increase comprehension for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Mark Benjamin, NTID

Sharron Webster, assistant professor in the math and science department at NTID, taught statistics for the first time in an updated room, and is thrilled about all the extra tools.

“Generally, most students enjoy the benefit of receiving information two ways: they see it and hear it, which emphasizes and reinforces the information,” Webster explains. “But for students with hearing loss, providing information visually becomes an even more critical component for comprehension.”

Some rooms feature “smart boards,” which look like white boards, but, with a push of a button, any text or image can be saved and printed for reference.

Sending overhead projectors straight to the land of obsolescence, the new visualizers provide incredible clarity at highly magnified levels.

Using the technology is easy, she says, but Webster admits she was a little intimidated at first.

“I’m the type of person who finds technology kind of overwhelming,” she says. “There are three different remote controls, which was confusing at first, but the training made my apprehension disappear.”

What if the technological novice gets stuck in the middle of a class?

A new help request system puts those worries to rest. Webster, who is deaf, uses the videophone to call the help desk. (Two years ago, NTID installed 500 videophones donated by Sprint in the dorms, apartments and offices for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, faculty and staff.) Professors can communicate via sign language or voice with the help desk.

On the job technology
John Macko, associate director of NTID’s Center on Employment, regularly uses his videophone to talk with students, employers and colleagues.

As a hard-of-hearing person, he says technology improvements have definitely increased opportunities since he graduated from college in the early 1990s.

John Macko
Associate Director of NTID's Center on Employment John Macko says using his videophone decreases the chance for misunderstanding.

Shortly after he interviewed for a job after graduation, Macko went camping with friends in Michigan. During that camping trip, the employer called at his parent’s home in New Jersey to set up a second interview. Macko’s father had to call friends in Michigan, who then drove to the campsite to give Macko the message.

Today, with two-way pagers, easy Internet access and increased capabilities, communication is instantaneous, making it possible for employment and social opportunities never before possible.

“Unlike e-mail or TTY’s, videophones allow fast communication where you can read the other person’s expressions,” he says. “The risk of miscommunication or misunderstanding is greatly reduced. While I sit in my office, I’m having face-to-face communication with people in other offices, companies or states. Because of these technologies, hearing loss is not the barrier it used to be.”

Center of Excellence
Because of its extensive experience and knowledge with deafness, technology, science and engineering, RIT is uniquely positioned to establish the Center on Access Technology in Deaf Education.

Leading that effort is James J. DeCaro, director of Postsecondary Education Network International and former NTID dean.

“We are establishing a collaborative research, development and implementation support network that will include RIT faculty, researchers from other universities, industries, professional organizations and access service providers,” says DeCaro, who expects the center to be making major strides by mid-2006. “Many new technologies can be customized for deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s needs. We’d like to work with business and industry to build accessibility features into the design, instead of doing retrofitting after the fact.

”The ultimate goal, DeCaro explains, is enhanced access to classroom, laboratory and associated experiences, and unencumbered access to overall personal, social and co-curricular realms of the educational environment for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Stay tuned – or networked.

As technological innovations continue at breakneck speed, RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf will be there, breaking down whatever

Karen Black

barriers remain.