Computer Interface To Help Deaf-Blind Community

July 30, 1998

Krista Caudill, a deaf and blind undergraduate researcher at the University of Delaware, is helping to design a portable computer that will "speak" as she types and will translate other people's speech into Braille.

Caudill is participating in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project to design the system that will begin to free her and others from total dependence on sign-language interpreters in order to communicate.

In addition to designing the prototype which Caudill will evaluate extensively in the real-world setting of her campus, researchers will study the impact on communication between individuals when a computer translates the information from one format to another, such as from the spoken word to Braille. During such translation, errors are inevitable. The project will address many questions: How many mistakes are acceptable before communication breaks down? What happens when Caudill is talking to someone who has never used such a system? How will the users adapt to using a computer to facilitate human-human communication? Can the system be adapted to include other users-people who are deaf-blind, people with other disabilities and perhaps people who have no disabilities?

Caudill, who has been deaf and blind since she was a child, uses the Internet extensively to stay in touch with many people around the world. However, she must rely on a human interpreter for face-to-face interactions with people who do not know sign language. Since trained interpreters are costly and must be scheduled in advance, spontaneous one-to-one conversations are difficult. Caudill has been eager to pursue a meaningful college education, but both formal education and personal interactions are frequently stymied by her complete dependence upon a sign language interpreter to communicate.

Richard Foulds of A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., received the approximately $98,000 grant from NSF to conduct the two-year study. The project includes Caudill and several other students to design and evaluate the system. This project was inspired by Caudill's participation in an undergraduate student design course taught by Foulds. Using a technique known as scenario-based design, Caudill and a colleague, Beth Finn, developed a conceptual design selected as a winner in the student design competition of the Rehabilitation Engineering Society.

The project will allow student researchers to construct a working prototype that implements the design concepts. The goal is to create a system that can be used by a wide range of users.

"Computers have such potential to open doors to better communication for people with disabilities-and for all people," said Gary Strong, NSF program manager for human-computer interaction. "By understanding how computers can mediate communication, we can not only help Krista and the deaf-blind community, but potentially everyone."

Caudill is also pleased. "This system will help me tremendously," she said. "I will be able to communicate with other people who don't know sign language. I would be able to have conversations with a group of people, such as a study group, or carry the laptop and use the system in public. It will also help other people who are like me."
Editors: According to the Helen Keller National Center, more than 70,000 individuals in the United States are deaf and blind. Many thousands more have related communication difficulties.

Broadcasters: For b-roll, contact: Dena Headlee 1-888-937-5249

Program contact: Gary Strong, (703) 306-1928,

National Science Foundation

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