an untapped talent pool

Thanks to the rapid development of assistive devices, students with disabilities can be trained for high-tech jobs, which may help ease the shortage of technology workers.

By Thomas K. Grose

Photo copyright 2000, USA Today
Jesse Leaman, 22, was paralyzed from the neck down after a skiing mishap. With help from voice recognition devices, he is pursuing an advanced degree at the University of Maryland
Sara Gould was a smart, straight-A high-school student with a dream of some day designing roller coasters. Then she was felled, at age 14, by a rare virus that attacked the cilia in her inner ear and within 24 hours she was almost entirely deaf.

Gould's teachers at her Binghamton, NY, school wanted to remove her from the honors program, but with her family's backing, she soldiered on and graduated. For the last four years, she's been a mechanical engineering student at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, one of seven colleges at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, a federally funded school that lets deaf and hard-of-hearing students earn technical degrees in a mainstream setting. Of RIT's 13,000 students, 1,100 are deaf.

Gould, now 21, received little support while in high school, relying at times on carbon copies of notes taken by classmates. But once at NTID, she discovered C-Print, a real-time captioning software program developed at the institute that gives deaf students the chance to "see" what's being said in class. Here's how it works: a stenographer sitting at one laptop computer types everything that's said in class, from the instructor's comments to remarks from students. A deaf student, sitting at another laptop, can instantly read along. And the entire commentary can be saved for review later. "C-Print is a huge help to me in class, and allows me to relax and absorb information the same as hearing students," Gould explains. "C-Print has definitely made going to classes much less strenuous for me.

"Meanwhile, halfway across the country, Purdue University chemistry professor Fred Lytle has developed "Tactile Access to Education for Visually Impaired Students," software that quickly encodes mathematical equations and chemical formulae into braille. Lytle created the software four years ago, after learning that two blind students taking a chemistry course had reached an impasse because formulae could not automatically be transcribed into braille. "It has really opened the sciences to the blind," raves Paula Micka, an assistant dean of students at Purdue and head of Adaptive Programs. The TAEVIS program now also includes tactile charts, graphs, and illustrations.

Enabling Enrollment

C-Print and TAEVIS are but two examples of assistive technology, innovations that give the disabled access to information technology or use technology to enhance their lives. And the pace of breakthroughs in assistive technology in recent years--from voice-activated computers to scanners that "read" texts--has been mind-boggling. The upshot is that growing numbers of students with disabilities can now more easily seek degrees in engineering and science. "Assistive technology is what is making it happen," claims Virginia Stern, a project director in the American Association for the Advancement of Science's education and human resources department. In many cases, she adds, students with disabilities are earning undergraduate and advanced technical degrees that would have been unobtainable for them even a few years ago.

Numbers, however, aren't readily available, in part because not all students with disabilities choose to identify themselves. But there are encouraging signs. For instance, two Midwestern schools with large engineering and science curriculums show increasing numbers of students with disabilities enrolled. Last year, Purdue had 763 students who acknowledged disabilities, up from 638 five years ago. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has 512 students with disabilities enrolled this year, up from 449 last year and 415 in 1998.

As more students with disabilities graduate with science and engineering degrees, it could help ease the chronic shortage of skilled labor plaguing America's technology industry. Stern calls students with disabilities "an untapped talent pool . . . They really are talented students who are also high-achieving students," she says. An additional bonus for employers: "They are also problem-solvers who have been solving problems all their lives."

More Hurdles

Photo by David Umberger
Cary Supalo, a blind student from Bolingbrook, Ill., uses tactile models and Braille notes while studying in a Purdue chemistry lab.

To be sure, despite the strides made in assistive technology, there is still a long way to go because even the most useful products have drawbacks. Though Gould finds C-Print extremely useful, "it's not perfect." In part, that's because of the human element. "Captionists generally have very limited knowledge of the material presented in my engineering classes. If they don't know the vocabulary used, it makes it very hard to type what they are hearing," Gould says. That's a problem that can be exacerbated by professors who talk too fast. Gould has also used a system called Phonic Ear, in which a microphone worn by the teacher sends a radio signal to a user's hearing aid. This is particularly useful in large lecture halls, where the device cuts out background noises and echoes. But Gould, who relies heavily on lip-reading as well, finds that if she can't see the instructor's face clearly, she can only understand 60 to 70 percent of what she hears. Also, it is of no value when there is a class discussion, because she can't hear the other students.

For people who cannot use keyboards, voice recognition systems that allow computers to respond to oral commands have been a godsend. But the systems are still somewhat hampered by errors. Nonetheless, as Stern points out, they are now responsible for some very bright students unlocking their talents from their physical restrictions. One student the AAAS has worked with is Jesse Leaman, 22, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a skiing mishap four years ago left him with a high-spinal-cord injury. Thanks to voice recognition programs, he is now earning an advanced degree in astronomy at the University of Maryland and has interned at the Goddard Space Flight Center's astrophysics laboratory and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Other innovations now available that help students with disabilities earn degrees include browsers that read aloud (using a synthesized voice) what's on a Web page; vision-operated controls that use lasers and let people operate PCs by merely gazing at command buttons; software that recognizes unusual speech patterns and translates them into easily understandable speech, which helps people with speech disabilities converse normally; and wireless pagers that let the deaf access voice phones, and send and receive e-mail, facsimiles, and TTY calls.

For some, just having use of the Internet is a means of breaking free of physical limitations. Gould claims it "is probably my favorite thing to experience." The 'Net allows deaf people to converse without phones: Gould uses America Online's Instant Messenger service and e-mails to do internship interviews, and she goes online to professional tutoring Web sites to get homework help.

Non-Tech Support

Of course, helping students with disabilities navigate their way through at least four years of academia requires more than the latest gizmos. They need housing and transportation support, and opportunities to enjoy nonacademic activities. Stern notes that time is often a factor for students with disabilities: they may need more time to get to classes, to finish projects, and to read assignments. It's crucial, she says, that faculty members are willing to help, as well. While Stern says that most engineering instructors are understanding and helpful, some are less so, "and invisible disabilities make it even more difficult." A student in a wheelchair is clearly disabled, but "students with learning disabilities are sometimes doubted by faculty."

Professor Clark Gedney (foreground) teaches a multimedia biology class in which Daphne Craft (standing) signs for deaf student Katie Wodika.

Purdue's Micka says that "on a whole, the faculty has been wonderful." The school finds things work best when teachers are informed and prepared in advance, so they're not presented with surprises. "The more information they're given, the more open they are," Micka maintains. Jon Gunderson, Illinois' coordinator of assistive communication and information technology, says "the main difficulty is asking [faculty members] to change instructional materials to more accessible formats or to change their teaching style to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. This takes some energy on their part and there is not usually a lot of enthusiasm for doing this by most faculty.

"Illinois, which has a long history of attracting students with disabilities, has been a leader in designing a campus that's disabled-friendly. In recent years, to help gain the greatest benefits from assistive technologies, the school has begun placing the technologies at various locations around campus; scheduling summer camps for high-schoolers with disabilities to teach them how to use the products; and designing software that makes the Linux operating system more accessible, because science and technology students often work with Unix-based systems.

The explosion in assistive technologies is likely to be further boosted by a recent U.S. government decision that all federal agencies must make their Web sites and software programs accessible to the disabled--a mandate that could cost anywhere from $85 million to $691 million, which is a huge incentive to businesses to provide the necessary products. Moreover, it will likely encourage many businesses to follow the government's lead.

So, what's in the assistive technologies pipeline? Almost anything fertile imaginations can dream of. NTID recently received a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to design a voice recognition version of C-Print. Rather than having to type what's said in class, the captionist will dictate into a stenomask and the words will instantly appear on the user's laptop screen. And in the not-too-distant future, live video received online should improve to the point that the deaf can communicate via the Net by signing. Additionally, the growing popularity of distance education, combined with these tools, will mean that even people so disabled that they remain housebound will have a chance to earn degrees and become employed. Gould still hopes to design roller coasters someday, though she knows she may have to begin by first designing smaller theme-park attractions. Yet, she's realistic. "If somehow my dreams don't play out, there are many, many good careers in mechanical engineering that I think would be fun." But wherever her career path leads, Gould now knows she won't be silenced into taking detours.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer living in London.