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Breaking sound barriers

Deaf and hearing-impaired children have yet to reap many of the benefits technical innovation can offer. Carolyn O'Grady reports

Technology has given much to children with special needs, but deaf and hearing-impaired people have so far reaped few of the benefits, despite the fact that seven and a half million adults in Britain have some degree of hearing impairment, over 65,000 of whom are children.

To try and raise awareness of what technology might provide, the National Council for Educational Technology last week organised a conference in London, Focus on Deaf People, as part of a project which has supported a number of information technology schemes for the hearing-impaired run by local education authorities, colleges and organisations for the deaf in the UK.

It is important "that we try to find software solutions to meet the needs of the deaf and hearing-impaired. But for that to happen, it is important that deaf and hearing people and their teachers tell the developers what they want," says Sally McKeown, the NCET's programme officer. "A lot of teachers and researchers working in the field do not know what others are doing." The conference, it was hoped, would enable them to discuss and disseminate findings and methods.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing require better access to information and the development of appropriate visual ways of presenting information. Also needed are tools for developing literacy. Because they cannot hear sounds properly or at all, children with hearing impairment have great difficulty learning to read and write: an average deaf l6-year-old will probably have a reading age of around seven. Many deaf people initially learn to communicate in British Sign Language, but then they have to make the leap into reading and writing in English a difficult transition.

Offering help in two of these areas is Telecommunications for Deaf Children, a project funded by BBC Children in Need and organised by the charity Deaf Fax Trust, which aims to raise awareness of telecommunications and to help deaf and hard-of-hearing children and their families and friends to enjoy the benefits. The project organises workshops in which deaf children practise using fax machines and Minicoms (telephones in which the handset is placed on a small keyboard and the message typed to appear on a two-line screen). These are initially independent of the telephone line, but later linked to it.

"I am constantly meeting deaf children aged eight and over who have never used a telephone," says Ria Williams, the project leader. She has found that the training sessions improve confidence and communications skills and eventually help the children to build social contacts. They have also boosted literacy, as children are encouraged to write their fax messages and type their Minicom messages. The project is now beginning to use electronic mail, which has "much to offer deaf pupils".

But despite mounting evidence of the value of this equipment to deaf and hearing-impaired children, a survey of schools and units working with deaf children has shown that the schools have little experience of telecommunications technology. Out of 53 which returned an NCETDeaf Fax questionnaire, 47 per cent had no telecommunications equipment at all and only 2 per cent used it to support literacy development.

Another project which illustrates how telecommunications technology can help with social and other interactions is the Camden TeleCommunity Project. Using the videotelephony service on the ISDN digital network, which gives a better picture of the "speakers" on a screen linked to a telephone than is normally available through videophone services, the project has given deaf people access to information services in libraries and connected two schools for the deaf in the London borough of Camden and Wandsworth. The better picture means that adults and children can sign to each other and lip-read.

The take-up of services has been much greater than expected, says project leader Andrew Stephens. Children in the two schools are enthusiastic. They use videotelephony primarily for social interactions, but it is also used by staff and for contact between children and social workers. In addition, it supports the transfer from the Camden school to the Wandsworth school.

The bad news is that at present a terminal costs around Pounds 7,000, but the introduction of PC-based video telephony should make the service cheaper, says Andrew Stephens.

An attempt to improve the literacy skills of profoundly deaf pupils who use British Sign Langauge, was described by Peter Plant of Longwill School in Birmingham. The project has created a system of sign graphics which enables pupils to read BSL and at the same time increases their confidence in mastering written text. It also leads to the acquisition of some pre-reading skills, for example left to right orientation.

It is too early, says Peter Plant, to say positively whether it will have a good effect on their English reading and writing, but this is the hope. A computer program, called Sign Graphics, which aims to help teachers develop their own sign graphics for any subject, is now available.

CD-Rom packages are a great motivator for all children, says Peter Orford of the Yorkshire Residential School for the Deaf in Doncaster. They offer "great visual images and open up areas for conversation", but there are difficulties to be overcome when using them with deaf children.

In particular sound quality is often bad and there is frequently a lot of background noise, for example, music, which obscures the soundtrack for those children who have some hearing. However, certain packages do allow the user to cut out background noise and improve the sound quality.

Packages which enable pupils to create their own CD-Rom publications are very useful. "Electronic scrapbooks" such as HyperStudio can enable deaf users to add subtitles, enhance sound and add signing, which might be a videotaped component in the corner, says Tony Wheeler of TAG Developments.

At Norwood Green Junior School in Hounslow, teachers have used The Complete Animator from Iota software to add animated signed language to a series of talking book programs. The book was The Go Kart, part of the Oxford Reading Tree, from which a character called Kipper was chosen as storyteller.

Clicking on an icon brings the Kipper figure to life and he speaks and signs the words on the page on screen. Children love it. "Seeing signing on the screen creates very high levels of motivation to use the program," says one of the teachers, Michelle Durrant. "They very rarely see sign language anywhere except with their friends, family and teachers."

HyperStudio, Pounds 99.95 for single user, TAG Developments, 25 Pelham Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 0HU. Tel: 01474 357350. The Complete Animator, Pounds 102.53 single user, Iota Software, Iota House, Wellington Court, Cambridge CB1 1HZ. Tel: 01223 566789.

Sign Graphics, Pounds 55 for site licence, Semerc, Broadbent Road, Oldham OL1 4AU. Tel: 0161 627 4469.

More information on these and other projects can be obtained from Sally McKeown, National Council for Educational Technology, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416994

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