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Technology lifts the sound barriers

Tina gained the confidence to get a job at her computing night class. Matthew doesn't have to keep bothering colleagues at work anymore. Helan can e-mail her daughter at college.

A typical tale of personal triumph on an information technology beginners' course, except this is one of the first courses in the country run for deaf people.

Suffolk Basic Skills Centre in Ipswich is running the one-year course for seven students with severe hearing loss. The scheme was thought up by a deaf computer programmer at the nearby British Telecom research institute at Marklesham who believes technology is the key to helping people like him communicate and find work.

Stephen McConnell, 29, is the only deaf employee at the 5,000-strong base. A 'techie' since he was given his first computer game at the age of five, he says: "Deaf people can learn about computers nearly as easily as hearing people. But it's difficult to learn in ordinary evening classes."

"Tutors don't understand the problems people with hearing difficulties have. If they turn away, you can't see their lips."

Stephen persuaded BT to fund the course for a year, and acts as a mentor to the students, who use both signing and lip-reading.

The course leads to an RSA qualification and is designed to meet all the students' needs. Many of them had bad experiences at school - special and mainstream - and left with few or no qualifications.

Helan Dewhurst says her life has been revolutionised by technology. "It saddens me to think that people such as me have to rely on the goodwill of sponsors such as BT rather than the Government for basic training such as this."

The course has been a new experience for tutors as well, and tutor Linda Billinge hopes it will continue but BT's Community Partnership usually funds projects for one year only. Funding for a second year is uncertain.

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