School administrators charged with ensuring that handicapped students receive an education equal to their peers might welcome a powerful new technology that addresses the special needs of deaf or hearing-impaired students.

Created by Interactive Solutions Inc., a subsidiary of Teltronics, the iCommunicator system makes verbal communication possible between the hearing world and a person who is profoundly deaf, hard of hearing, or has special needs.

“Most children hard of hearing leave our school systems after 12 years with a fourth-grade reading level,” said Michael Dorety, president of Interactive Solutions. “We want to teach them to comprehend the spoken word and to read the written word effectively.”

iCommunicator consists of a high-powered laptop with software, a connection to the student’s hearing assistance device (if the student has one), and a small wireless microphone worn by the teacher. The microphone transmits directly to the student’s laptop.

“To our knowledge, there is no product like it,” said Dorety.

He said iCommunicator was conceived two years ago, when Dorety was approached by Virginia Greene and her then-16-year-old son, Morgan. Morgan is profoundly deaf and uses a hearing device called a cochlear implant.

Cochlear implants are surgically implanted devices that create an artificial sense of sound by sending electrical impulses into the auditory nerve. iCommunicator can be connected to work with this device or a more traditional hearing aid worn externally.

“We were asked to invent a product that allowed Morgan to communicate with the hearing world and not rely on a sign language interpreter,” said Dorety. The problem with interpreters is that they are rare and can lead to dependency when deaf students rely on having them to communicate, he said.

“iCommunicator is not intended to replace sign language interpreters; it’s intended to support the child when the interpreter is not there,” said Dorety.

To use the iCommunicator, the teacher speaks into a small wireless microphone that transmits directly to the student’s laptop computer.

“The computer must be high-end—750 MHz or better—because as you speak, your voice is converted to text and simultaneously converted to sign language,” said Dorety.

When a teacher speaks a word, the student sees that word appear on the screen and simultaneously sees a video of an interpreter signing the same word. If a hearing-impaired child has a cochlear implant or wears a hearing aid, he or she also can hear the word pronounced.

“We take the teacher’s voice and convert it to a computer-generated voice,” said Dorety. “That computer-generated voice comes from the laptop and plugs directly into the student’s hearing aid or cochlear implant, eliminating all ambient noises.”

Not being able to determine whether sounds picked up by cochlear implants or hearing aids are actually words—rather than background noise—is one limitation of those devices, he said. With iCommunicator, when students hear a word, they know the sound they are hearing is, in fact, a word.

“The question here is how to make [hearing aids and implants] more usable,” said Dorety. “One of the [added benefits] of this technology is that the multisensory [elements] can allow for real comprehension.”

If a student wants to communicate back, he can type a response and the computer pronounces the words. That speech then loops back to the child so he can hear how the computer pronounces the words and can break them down into syllables, learning how to pronounce the words himself.

According to company officials, iCommunicator is based on an open-architecture platform and is effective for most children who have a basic understanding of reading and sign language, even as young as 5.

Sue Potteiger teaches third grade to 9-year-old Hilary Sedgeman at Bell Shoals Baptist Academy (preK-8, enr. 500) near Tampa, Fla. Hilary is almost entirely deaf and uses two high-powered hearing aids. Her classmates can hear normally.

“From the time Hilary was two she loved to use my computer—she really connected with it,” said Martha Cook, Hilary’s mother. “But there was nothing out there that would work for school.” Then last year Cook read about iCommunicator and purchased one of the systems for Hilary to use in second grade.

“She learned to use it and we took it to her private school and said, ‘Here, we need you to use this,'” said Cook.

During class, Potteiger must pronounce her words precisely, like a television broadcaster, Cook said.

“The trainers came and trained my voice into the technology so that it can recognize my speech patterns,” said Potteiger. “We also had a training session with the kids, where they could ask questions and understand that it is not a toy, but something that helps Hilary learn.”

She estimates that the professional development involved took no more than six to eight hours in total.

“In class you have to enunciate your words and slow down your normal conversational speech,” said Potteiger. “Beyond that, getting it plugged in and turned on every morning is really the biggest challenge. It is very user-friendly.”

“It’s [an] instantaneous, close-captioned classroom,” added Cook. “Hilary lip-reads, but with the iCommunicator the teacher can turn around and [Hilary] can still know what’s going on.”

Dorety cautioned that the iCommunicator is not a “silver bullet” and may not be appropriate for every child. “If there is a message I’d like to deliver, it is that educators need to assess both the product and the child for a match prior to purchasing this,” he said.

For those who decide iCommunicator would be a boon for their hearing-impaired students, the cost can be prohibitive. The price for a single unit is $8,100, and Dorety said the majority of that cost is equipment-related.

“The computers we use today are 750 MHz to 850 MHz Pentium laptops, and they are very expensive,” he said. “Six months from now the price may go down, but the system does run more efficiently with a higher processor.”

The warranty, service, and software integration are all included, but an optional teacher training package is an additional $1,200 to $1,400.

“The training on the product is down to a couple of hours now,” Dorety said. “We can establish very high voice-recognition accuracy by reading two short stories that take about an hour.”

The company encourages schools to bring in eight to 10 teachers for the training session and implement a ‘train the trainer’ system. Plans to offer training through the 150 New Horizons Learning Centers nationwide, as well as a web-based training option, are in the works.

To date, about 20 school districts and state and federal government agencies have placed orders for the iCommunicator system, Dorety said. Each organization is expected to purchase additional systems as funding is approved.

Links:

Interactive Solutions’ iCommunicator
http://www.teachthedeaf.com