Research and technological aids for people who are deaf-blind

Research and technological aids for people who are deaf-blind

Daniel E. Hinton, Sr.

Research and Technological Aids for People Who are Deaf-Blind

Six years ago, Daniel Hinton, Sr., an engineer with a profoundly deaf-blind son, Dan, Jr., started a deaf-blind research and development program at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). This article discusses: (1) the SAIC development team and it’s unique approach for developing aids and devices for deaf-blind people; (2) the technological needs of deaf-blind people; (3) several aids and devices developed for the deaf-blind consumer; and (4) future deaf-blind research and development needs.

The Development Team

The development team philosophy revolves around the deaf-blind consumer, and adds a supporting team of educators, rehabilitation specialists, engineers, and scientists. The process begins with deaf-blind consumers identifying their basic equipment needs. The support team, assisted by the deaf-blind consumer, interactively translates the needs into technical requirements, develops prototype devices and conducts training and test programs. The deaf-blind consumer is the focus of the testing in the home, work and rehabilitation environments. Deaf-blind consumers make the final determination on the device’s usefulness and its value to their community. This development team philosophy has resulted in practical hardware that allows deaf-blind people to read television, locate people in a room and use personal computers.

That the deaf-blind population is highly heterogeneous was realized early by the development team. My personal experience with Dan, with many other deaf-blind consumers and with the educational and rehabilitation communities indicates to me that the deaf-blind population varies. It varies from people who live in institutions for the profoundly retarded to professionals with Ph.D. degrees. People who are deaf-blind also differ on their degree of vision and hearing loss, age of onset, which disability occurred first, language development (from no language to sign language or English competence), and communications mode (braille, finger spelling, sign, speech, and print). With this functional diversity among the estimated 40,000 deaf-blind people nationwide, it is difficult to define the broad technological needs of people who are deaf-blind. Therefore, individual needs must be assessed before devices are developed that meet the broadest range of personal needs.

The difficulty in developing equipment for deaf-blind people is directly related to the unique problem of their dual handicap. Devices produced for people who are hearing impaired, such as TeleCaption decoders for reading television, are not accessible by deaf-blind people based on degree of visual impairment, nor are devices produced for people who are blind, such as speaking clocks, stoves, computers, and other devices accessible by people who are deaf-blind based on degree of hearing impairment. In most cases, hearing impaired and blind aids and devices must be modified to provide large character displays, braille or tactile outputs for deaf-blind people to allow as many people as possible to use the devices at affordable prices.

Technological Needs of Deaf-Blind People

In general, deaf-blind people have the same basic needs that we all have, such as a comfortable place to live, meaningful employment and opportunities for recreation and socialization based upon individual choice and options. To accomplish these goals, deaf-blind people require devices that expand their horizons. Individual needs include communication, education, recreation, situation awareness, lifestyle, and vocation. The devices can be simple or complicated in design or function, but for the deaf-blind person, it must be extremely simple to understand and operate. People who are deaf-blind must be able to operate the devices independently, or they will neither accept nor use the device at home, school and work.

To meet the research and development needs of deaf-blind people, SAIC established a professional development team with the development philosophy described above. The development team includes several deaf-blind consumers in the Washington, D.C., area, educators and rehabilitation specialists from the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC) in Sands Point, New York, and SAIC’s engineers, technicians and university student interns.

I am the senior SAIC engineer, and my son, Dan, provided the motivation for forming this development team concept. At the beginning, I could not understand why more devices were not available for deaf-blind people. After talking with many deaf-blind people and staff of the Helen Keller National Center in 1983, I was amazed to find that the only development team devoted to aids and devices for deaf-blind people was being dismantled that year at HKNC due to Congressional funding cuts. This HKNC team developed the TeleBrailler and the Tactile Communicator that allowed deaf-blind people independent communications for the first time. This gap in technology development led me to form the SAIC team to continue where the HKNC team left off.

Educators are important to the team because it is they who define the technology needed to education deaf-blind people. Generally, educators understand equipment requirements needed to meet future educational requirements in the classroom.

The rehabilitation specialists at the Helen Keller National Center teach deaf-blind people to cope with day-to-day living and understand the need for aids and devices that improve lifestyle and vocational opportunities. This includes mobility, independent living and vocational training. HKNC has the professionals to test the aids and devices with deaf-blind clients and to make specific recommendations for improvements.

Finally, SAIC engineers, technicians and student interns are needed to translate needs into hardware and software and form them into aids and devices for deaf-blind consumers. The central concept is to allow the engineers and technicians direct access to deaf-blind consultants and the other members of the team throughout the development process. This insures that the final devices and aids will meet the needs of deaf-blind people and also motivates the technical staff to think about present development efforts and future needs in human terms, rather than as abstract concepts.

The team approach insures successful development by establishing an environment in which the various team members can directly interact throughout the definition of needs, the definition of the technical requirements and the development and testing of the aids and devices.

The relatively small deaf-blind population requires a personal development approach to meet their needs at reasonable cost. Before development begins, the team identifies the need, surveys existing devices to make sure nothing already exists that could meet the need, looks at the possibility of modifying existing devices if practical, and, finally, begins developing a new specialized device only as a last resort.

Some Devices Developed for Deaf-Blind Consumers

Each of the following SAIC deaf-blind developments have a different story on how the development started which reflects this team philosophy:

* the Deaf-Blind Alarm Clock;

* the Braille TeleCaption System;

* the People Finder;

* the Deaf-Blind Computer Terminal Interface; and

* the Personal Braille Printer.

The Deaf-Blind Alarm Clock is an example of an aid that required no development effort. The HKNC staff, in an Advisory Council meeting, identified a need for a vibrator alarm clock for deaf-blind people. At this meeting, I recommended a simple commercially available wall timer that can be set by a deaf-blind person in 15-minute intervals and used with an existing vibrator device. No development was required. The device was implemented by HKNC and recommended to deaf-blind clients.

The Braille TeleCaption System uses the Department of Education developed TeleCaption set for people who are deaf, a computer and the HKNC developed TeleBrailler to allow deaf-blind people to read television. The Braille TeleCaption System is an example of a device that required modification of several existing devices and the development of special computer software and interconnecting cables.

The Braille TeleCaption System was my first practical invention for people who are deaf-blind; more than any other device, it illustrates the SAIC development philosophy. In 1981, at age 10, my son went deaf because of cancer. At that time, my wife and I purchased a TeleCaption decoder for hearing impaired people so Dan could read television. One year later, he became blind. I realized that the decoder was now useless to him, and I decided to develop a system that would provide a braille or tactile output to allow him to read television. Dan, was enthusiastic about the idea even though he did not know how to read braille or Morse code at the time. I developed a prototype system with a simple tactile output device that represented the six braille elements. This device was demonstrated to several deaf-blind persons, whose recommendations were included in the early design. Next, I applied for and was awarded in 1985 a Field Initiated Grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education. This provided funding to complete the development of the system software and hardware. The device is presently being used by over 20 deaf-blind people nationwide, as well as at the Helen Keller National Center for training and demonstration. The deaf-blind users say that the Braille TeleCaption system allows them to stay in touch with the world.

Development of the Braille TeleCaption System required designing a cable to connect the TeleCaption decoder with a Commodore 64 computer, developing software to translate the caption information into braille, and, finally, modifying a telephone handset to provide the connection between the computer and the TeleBrailler. Deaf-blind people can operate the device independently and use it with the TeleBrailler in the telephone mode to read closed caption news, weather and sports.

The People Finder is a specialized device designed and developed by Nelson Dew and me to meet the specific deaf-blind person’s need for a situational awareness device. The People Finder is a hand held device that uses infrared to locate people, stoves, animals, and other heat sources in the deaf-blind person’s immediate area. The device overcomes the deaf-blind person’s isolation by allowing him/her to be more independent through a better understanding of his/her environment. No other device on the market was available to meet this need. Several technologies were evaluated, and infrared technology was selected as the best method available. Circuits were designed and two prototype devices were fabricated, which are presently being tested by Dan and Jack Wright, who is also deaf-blind. Early indications are that the device will provide a significant improvement in a deaf-blind person’s ability to live a more independent lifestyle. Dan uses the device to locate members of the family in a room, to explore the neighborhood and to establish the location of people in meetings or social gatherings.

In test trials, it has allowed deaf-blind users to know when other people are in the room so that they can initiate a conversation. Also, in the kitchen they can determine if the stove is turned on. Many other heat sources are important to situational awareness as well — light sources, the heat from roofs which enables a deaf-blind person to locate buildings while walking, and the heat difference between sidewalk and grass. These things make it possible for the deaf-blind person to assess his/her environment.

The difference in the People Finder and other infrared devices is that its electronic circuit allows it to be used hand held and still have a very low false alarm rate.

This device grew out of Jack Wright’s request for a way to locate people around his home. Mr. Wright was unable to find his two adopted children when they were sleeping. Other deaf-blind people had a need to locate people and pets in a room. Mr. Dew and I discussed the problem, developed a proposed solution, discussed the solution with Mr. Wright, and constructed a prototype device. Mr. Wright is presently testing the People Finder in his home. The recommendations and ideas generated from the prototype test will be included in the final design.

The Deaf-Blind Computer Terminal Interface allows deaf-blind people to use a computer. The computer software and hardware allow the TeleBrailler to be used as a computer terminal to perform word processing, play games, act as a real-time clock and do several other functions. This device grew out of the Braille TeleCaption System program. The basic idea was to turn the TeleBrailler into a computer terminal.

The Deaf-Blind Computer Terminal Interface provides a direct computer connection between personal computers and the TeleBrailler, MicroBrailler and a large character telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD). The system allows deaf-blind people to use these devices with a computer for about $400. Considering that the TeleBrailler and MicroBrailler cost $5,000, this is a significant cost savings. Other braille computer devices on the market are expensive and cost between $5,000 and $12,000.

The Deaf-Blind Computer Terminal Interface program was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and is presently in the second year of a 3-year Field Initiated Grant. The program has made significant progress and is being tested in the Washington, D.C., area and at the Helen Keller National Center.

The last device to be discussed is the Personal Braille Printer. It uses a modified standard printer to print braille. The modification is inexpensive and can be done by a sighted person in about 1 hour. With the Personal Braille Printer, television program text can be printed in braille and other computer material can be printed for review and editing.

The Personal Braille Printer Program was initiated because TeleBrailler sales and production had stopped. The Braille TeleCaption system uses the TeleBrailler as the output device. SAIC needed an alternate way to provide closed caption to people who are deaf-blind.

The requirement for the printer was that the person with deaf-blindness be able to operate it without assistance, that it be inexpensive and that it print braille at 6-10 characters per second. The final design meets these design requirements.

A Radio Shack DWP 230 printer was modified to print braille. The printer cost $500 and the modification approximately $450. The printer attaches to a personal computer and, with SAIC software, prints standard text braille. Future plans call for braille software to be developed that can do all the braille contractions.

Future Research and Development Needs

Although SAIC’s work to date has provided significant development of devices for deaf-blind people, it falls short of the funding needed to make even more significant progress in meeting the needs of people who are deaf-blind. These needs include improved communications devices, such as a new Teletouch, voice to braille output devices, situational awareness devices, and a total 360 degree mobility system that can allow deaf-blind people to cross a road or just take a walk around the neighborhood.

To meet the future needs of deaf-blind people and to generate the necessary technology, a method is needed to fund the research and development. For people with other disabilities this has taken the form of a rehabilitation engineering center. A similar rehabilitation engineering center administered by the Helen Keller National Center could provide the nucleus for renewing the development of devices for deaf-blind people. Such a center would have consumer, research and development, applications testing, and university sponsored engineering segments applying the research approach discussed earlier to meet the needs of deaf-blind people. Providing research funds to private industry, universities and individual researchers with innovative ideas for advancing technology for deaf-blind people, a Deaf-Blind Rehabilitation Center working closely with companies like SAIC could insure the development of innovative devices to meet the technological needs of people who are deaf-blind.

Mr. Hinton is Senior Communications Engineer, Science Applications International Corporation, Arlington, Virginia.

COPYRIGHT 1989 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group