November 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 6

Conference Reports

How Do We Communicate (with Assistive Technology)? Let Me Count the Ways

When we consider the ways in which technology has improved the quality of life for people with disabilities, communication is certainly a key item on most lists. The ease of E-mail has made communicating with colleagues and friends a more convenient affair for everyone, but particularly for those who find handling a pencil or locating a printed address a cumbersome or impossible task.

At the national conference of the American Association of Deaf-Blind (AADB) in early August, however, it was apparent that technology—blended with remarkable measures of ingenuity, creativity, and stamina—is perhaps nowhere such an essential player in making communication possible than in this group of individuals with dual sensory impairments.

The "delegates," as they are called, attending an AADB conference have a wide range of vision and hearing losses. Some are totally blind and hard of hearing. Some are totally deaf with limited vision. Many have Usher syndrome, the genetic condition combining degenerative vision loss from retinitis pigmentosa with hearing impairment. Some of these individuals hear with hearing aids and see with magnifiers, and others are totally deaf and totally blind. Some attendees have had dual sensory losses from infancy, and others have grown up with either blindness or deafness and have experienced the second disability later in life. Given this varied array of disability, it should come as no surprise that making speech understood by all is something of a challenge. The AADB conference organizers met that challenge with an assortment of technology and techniques that was both inspiring and impressive.

There were about 900 people in attendance at this year's AADB conference, held at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. About half of those were individuals with visual and hearing impairments, since the policy of AADB is that every delegate, if he or she asks, is provided with an SSP (support service provider). Many, of course, need assistance only occasionally, so many SSPs serve multiple functions or act as "floaters" in that they circulate, monitoring who seems to be in need of communication or orientation assistance.

Whether a session involved 30 people in a breakout workshop or 900 at the awards banquet, the communication scenario ran pretty much the same and with remarkable smoothness. If you have never been to such an event, relinquish all "traditional" communication settings as you know them and step into this fascinating connection extravaganza for a moment.

How It Works

Let's say that the speaker addressing the audience is both deaf and blind. She happens to communicate in American Sign Language. She signs to an interpreter, who then voices her presentation into a microphone. An infrared amplification transmitter is connected to the sound system which, from the microphone, amplifies her voice for those participants in the room who are wearing infrared receivers to pick up the sound. These particular assistive listening devices consist of a lightweight headset and a small receiver hung about the neck, with an infrared "bubble" that picks up the amplified signal.

Meanwhile, other sign language interpreters around the room are repeating in sign the lecture as spoken by the voicing "platform" interpreter for the benefit of small clusters of people whose vision makes it necessary for them to see the signing at very close range, perhaps two or three people gathered together around one repeat signer.

For individuals who are both totally deaf and blind, tactile sign language interpreters repeat the discussion directly, one on one, into their hands. That is, of course, except for the totally deaf and blind individuals who do not prefer tactile sign and who can glean much more of the conversation by having another individual sit across from them over a TeleBraille and type the discussion for reading on a refreshable braille display.

Some deaf people do not speak sign language, and some blind people do not read braille. In other words, more solutions are needed to reach all participants. For individuals who have grown up deaf and lip-reading, an interpreter might repeat the spoken words at close visual range for recognition. For those who prefer large print, text interpreters type the spoken discussion verbatim on computer keyboards, sending it in large type to 27-inch TV monitors. Deaf individuals with visual impairments draw near to read the text interpretation. Meanwhile, a smaller number of individuals might be reading the text typed directly to a computer monitor or TTY visual display.

Who's Talking Now?

All of these techniques are used for the delivery of a one-way presentation—one speaker whose words are delivered in a variety of methods to many listeners. When a member of the audience has a question or comment, more technology and techniques rise to the call. If a speaker communicates with his or her voice, a voice-over interpreter repeats the words into a microphone so that it will be picked up by the infrared listening devices. The typing interpreters indicate the new speaker by typing: "John Jones is speaking," followed by the comments and then a return to, "Mary Smith is now continuing to speak." The new comments are delivered in the same varied methods—signing in small groups, tactile signing one on one, infrared listening devices for amplified sound, TeleBrailles for braille verbatim text, and typing interpreters for verbatim printed text. Although this array of communication techniques sounds a bit chaotic, the reality is a smoothly run and fully accessible discussion.

Technology to the Rescue

There are no ordinary seating arrangements at an AADB conference. Indeed, the moving of chairs to see an interpreter, read lips, or get closer to a microphone or TV monitor or other device is all part of the charm of this warm and vibrant scene for interaction. Listening to one another and reading written language may seem, on the surface, to be what is missed by individuals who can neither see nor hear to full capacity. The reality is that rarely have I witnessed so much attentive listening to one another, in a profound sense, in any gathering of people—and technology has made much of it possible.

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