Technology Can Help Deaf-Blind Infants

Frank B. Withrow - The Dawn Patrol

I continue to be fascinated with the education of disabled children and the impact of technology. A simple example of technology and the employment of disabled learners is the fast food market’s cash register. A mentally limited individual can be accurate by simply entering the cash register through pictures of items on the menu. Such registers calculate the cost, enter the money, and spit out the correct change. The only skill is the ability to use the pictographic keyboard of the cash register.

Illustration of a cochlear implant, betwee the ear and the cochlea

All infants join the collective society by learning the coding systems of communications. That is, through speech and language. By the time the average child enters first grade, he or she will have a 4000-word vocabulary. However, the range will be between 2000 and 6000 words. The range is partially determined by how much the parent talks with the child. The child with a 6000-word vocabulary will do well in our modern schools.

Deaf children master language either through ASL or speech reading. Blind children master an oral-aural language system. Cochlear implants allow many deaf children to master an oral-aural speech and language system. Cochlear implants are direct technology interfaces with the eighth nerve to the brain. Ocular implants have been experimented with for years to some extent, but so far are not as common as cochlear implants.

The challenge with deaf-blind infants is how to use their intact brainpower to decode and encode stimuli into language communications. We have examples of success in extraordinary people like Helen Keller and Bob Smithdus. We have not as yet seen the results of cochlear implants with such infants. Deaf-blind infants have intact tactile, olfactory, and taste senses. Successful deaf-blind people have developed both receptive and expressive communication systems through their tactile sense. This is a remarkable personal accomplishment by many deaf-blind people.

Deaf-blind people can and have developed speech, sign language, and the ability to read Braille. Could a computer analyze speech and translate it to Braille or another tactile stimulus that could be easily detected by the deaf-blind individual? Could the reverse be done, that is, could Braille be transcribed and converted to speech? Could Braille to speech converters enable deaf-blind individuals to carry on conversations with hearing people?

When we are alone with our thoughts, they often come in the form of a little man or woman in our heads, talking with us. If we are a musician, we hear music. If we are an artist, we may see paintings. If we are a scientist, we may see solutions to problems. If we are a baseball player, we may experience tactile images of the swing of a bat. In our mind’s eyes, hands, nose, tongue, or ears, we think of our world based upon our intact sensory systems. How can we enrich, through technology, the stimuli that a deaf-blind infant can detect? An infant that knows the world through touch, taste and smell?

This is a compelling challenge that I think will be resolved in the next five years. Yes, I believe technology can give deaf-blind infants a sense of hearing and sight. It may not be as full as or as rich as normal sensory systems, but it can make for a richer life for deaf-blind individuals.

Speech and language are public expressions of private sensory experiences. In whatever form, they bind individuals with other humans and allow a vibrant society to evolve. To think about our experiences and to share them with others is a unique human ability.

2 Responses

  1. These are important issues, Frank: true, softwares like NVDA (open source and for free) or JAWS (proprietary and expensive) not only can read aloud digital texts, but also transmit them to a Braille bar.

    However, the real problem is upstream, in conceiving digital info that will make sense to a child who discovers the world via smell, touch and taste, but not via sight and hearing. And as each child is different, how can we empower their parents and educators to customize these technical tools to each child’s needs and capacities? This holds true for other children who are not blind or deaf, actually. But it’s all the more imperative for those who are.

  2. In the 1960s we learned to bring pregnant women who had contacted German measles to full term. This resulted in thousands of multiply handicapped infants. For example the total Deaf blind population in the USA was 500 after these new births there were 5000. The federal government created regional deaf blind centers. Today some of these infants are independently functioning adults. Others require considerable assistance.

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