A Proposal for a Digital Braille Decoder of Spoken Speech for Deaf-Blind Students

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

In the United States of America, we are committed to the education of ALL children in appropriate educational settings. If possible this education should be in the least restrictive settings. At times this may mean individual tutoring to prepare them for broader educational experiences. The following is a case study of what might be for Orion, a child that is both deaf and blind. In the 1960s, due to a rubella epidemic and medical science learning how to bring pregnant women with rubella to full term, we created thousands of deaf-blind babies. Consequently, we have learned a great deal about the education of deaf-blind children. Some of those 1960 babies are now productive adults living interesting lives.

A Case Study

Perhaps a bit of genetics combined with environmental factors left Orion to be born both deaf and blind. Orion has a deaf older brother and a hearing sister. Both his parents have hearing losses. Orion’s family lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC, not far from Gallaudet University and near excellent medical facilities. Perhaps there is no other place in the world that has a richer environment for Orion to grow in. In his first year, Orion received a cochlear implant.

Orion likes the Braille books, for blind children, with tactile pages. Heather, Orion’s mother, uses touch signs with him to begin his communication skills. He did develop stimulus response activities with the touch signs.

The national Helen Keller Centers and state programs provide many lessons and services for the development of deaf-blind children.

An Individual Learning Plan for Orion

We know that the most likely standard universal linguistic code for Orion will be Braille. We know that his intact sensory systems are tactile, smell and taste; consequently the tactile sense is most likely to be the one through which he will develop both receptive and expressive communication skills. We know that with the cochlear implant he will have some residual hearing. We know he can and is developing some touch signs. As Orion matures and we are better able to define his residual hearing and other abilities, we will be better able to design individual learning activities for him.

For example, in vocabulary building we can use words he is most likely to hear and use — items that are touchable. A teddy bear is touchable and the name easy to hear. A saltshaker has a clear shape to feel and can also be tasted. Cookie is another similar word. As we know more about Orion, we can define a whole list of vocabulary words that he is likely to associate with codes and symbols.

The child with normal senses develops speech and oral language as his or her primary linguistic code. Orion will develop his primary language either with touch signs or Braille, Braille being the most universal and extensive code he can use.

Future Devices for Orion

If Orion relies on Braille as his primary linguistic code, of course, Braille books will be a great value to him. It should be possible, however, to develop a digitally based personal Braille decoder of spoken speech. Anyone speaking into this devise has their speech immediately translated into readable Braille so that Orion can read it in real time giving him access to universal conversations. Orion may or may not learn to speak, depending upon how much useful residual hearing he has. The future personal communication device can also have an expressive mode that allows Orion to express his ideas in synthesized speech. He can activate the speech by entering Braille codes.

As with all deaf-blind infants, the big breakthrough comes when they discover that there are codes that allow individuals to exchange past experiences and predict future experiences. Even at this young age, as reported by Heather, Orion is aware of stimulus and response activities, which set the foundation for linguistic development. Deaf-blind infants of necessity need individual tutoring experiences, but technology can offer them a way to more fully take advantage of learning. The proposed personal digital communication device potentially can allow a deaf-blind student to participate certainly in small groups and perhaps even regular small classes.

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