How Accessibility Solutions Impact the College Environment and Workplace for Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Individuals

Gary Behm, Interim AVP for NTID Academic Affairs and Director, NTID Center on Access Technology
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Gary Behm, Interim AVP for NTID Academic Affairs and Director, NTID Center on Access Technology

Gary Behm, Interim AVP for NTID Academic Affairs and Director, NTID Center on Access Technology

Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which guaranteed accommodations in education and the workplace, helped transform the opportunity landscape for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but creating opportunity was not sufficient to ensure success. Technology needed to be developed to help meet the demands of the workplace environment. Faculty and staff at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the deaf, looked around at their talented colleagues and students, and realized they were in the best position to take a lead role in developing accessibility solutions that would impact not only the college environment to enhance educational opportunities, but that these same solutions could be transferred to the workplace to make the transition from college to beyond graduation smoother.

Established by an act of Congress in June 1965, NTID was and is the first and largest technological college in the world specifically designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Its creation was a significant step toward removing the barriers to education and employment for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, who had historically been relegated to low-wage jobs or public assistance.

 One such collaboration that is showing great promise is with the Microsoft AI team and their Microsoft Translator 

Some of the early accessibility innovations were the teletypewriter or TTY. RIT/NTID faculty member Paul Taylor saw an opportunity to combine Western Union teletypewriters with modems to create the first telecommunications devices for the deaf, known as TDDs or TTYs. But he didn't stop there. He then helped to create a network of these devices, as well as using them to launch local telephone wake-up services for the deaf and the nation's first telephone relay system for the deaf, which he expanded to a statewide system. Taylor was chair of RIT/NTID’s engineering support team starting in 1975 and remained a faculty member for 30 years, continuing to innovate and advocate in telecommunications for the deaf.

RIT/NTID faculty member Mike Stinson and his team developed C-Print®, a speech-to-text (captioning) technology and service in the 1990s. The system is used in academic settings to provide communication access to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing in many programs around the country. In addition to educational environments, C-Print also is used in business and community settings, and with individuals with other disabilities, such as those with a visual impairment or a learning disability.

Realizing the need to make accessibility research and development a strategic priority, RIT/NTID established the Center on Access Technology, a ‘sand box’ where faculty and students investigate, evaluate and report on the most effective and efficient use of access technologies and train individuals in their use to accelerate the widespread implementation of best practices within deaf education at the postsecondary level. The center creates a collaborative network of individuals from RIT and other universities, as well as from industry and professional organizations, to promote research and development of access technologies that will positively impact postsecondary educational experiences for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

One such collaboration that is showing great promise is with the Microsoft AI team and their Microsoft Translator; a cloud based automatic translation service used by businesses worldwide to enable their content to reach a global audience.

The Translator team works closely with RIT/NTID’s CAT Lab on a pilot program to provide automatic speech recognition services in 10 RIT/NTID classrooms with students who are hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing. Pilot classrooms are equipped with Microsoft’s Presentation Translator, and the faculty member’s lecture appears on the screen below PowerPoint slides via the professor speaking into a headset. Students can download the Translator app to their laptop, phone or tablet and receive the captions in real time in the language of their choice.

In addition to Translator, the CAT Lab’s other projects include automatic speech recognition for deaf members of a rowing crew team, a fully accessible app for museum visitors, and a deaf-friendly adaptation of coordinate measuring machine (CMM) manufacturing equipment.

Innovations such as these positively impact not only the college learning environment, but prepare students to go into the world of work with solutions to meet any barriers to accessibility. These students learn that they do not need to passively stand by and settle for doors being closed to them. They can become active participants in overcoming barriers to access, and bring to their workplaces a can do spirit that benefits all aspects of the work environment.

One of nine colleges on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, NTID enrolls students in programs at every academic level across RIT, including doctoral programs. More than 8,000 alumni live and work in all 50 states and 20 countries in all economic sectors, including business and industry, healthcare, education and government.

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