Program opens high-tech world to deaf students

In a University of Washington (UW) animation classroom, with colorful, cutout Pixar heroes flexing their muscles on the walls, a group of students with their own animated expressions compete to offer ideas. Most use American Sign Language (ASL) and jump to their feet to sign, so their hands can be seen above the computer monitors around the room.

This summer academy–thought to be the only one of its kind in the United States–introduces deaf and hard-of-hearing students to careers in computer sciences. For many of the participants, it’s their first glimpse inside the high-tech world. For some, it is the first time as students that they have been able to spontaneously talk to their classmates.

“It’s inspiring,” said 17-year-old Johanna Lucht, of Anchorage, through an interpreter. “It’s opening a whole new world for me.”

Funded through the National Science Foundation, the UW Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing seeks to diversify the computer-science work force and to encourage deaf and hard-of-hearing students to pursue advanced degrees and high-tech careers.

The nine-week intensive program recruits 10 outstanding math and science students ages 16 to 22 from around the U.S. This summer’s class includes deaf students from Texas, Virginia, Maine, New York, Arizona, and Indiana, as well as two from Washington.

The students live on campus, take a college-level computer-programming course, and earn a certificate in computer animation. They go on field trips to Microsoft, Google, Adobe, and Valve, a Bellevue, Wash.-based computer-game company. They meet deaf professionals at those firms and learn strategies for negotiating a hearing workplace.

And in their down time, they tour Seattle–all at no cost to the students.

Rob Roth, who coordinates the program and is himself deaf, said deaf students are more likely to be guided toward careers repairing computers than writing the software or designing new applications.

“They can do so much more,” he said.

The summer academy was the idea of Richard Ladner, a UW computer-science professor whose parents were both deaf. His father earned a degree at the University of California, Berkeley, at a time when colleges made no accommodations for students with disabilities. Both of Ladner’s parents also taught at a K-12 school for the deaf.

But Ladner said there were almost no deaf people earning doctorates in computer sciences and few academics in the field. He wanted to create a program that would not only encourage deaf students but also build their capacity for college-level work.

After three years, he said, “The students are better; the program is better. And word is getting out that we’re here.”

In the computer-animation classroom on campus, the students divide into teams to plan their final projects: three-minute video shorts. Two ASL interpreters relay the instructor’s directions and questions. A third interpreter turns the spoken words into captions displayed on a screen at the front of the room for those students who don’t use ASL.

Josiah Cheslik, 20, an Everett Community College student from Lake Stevens, Wash., explains the plot for his group’s animated short: A mouse father inexplicably disappears one day, leaving mice siblings to fend for themselves. After chaotic and ill-conceived efforts, the mice team up for success.

“It’s a tear-jerker,” Cheslik signs, to laughter.

When a second team presents its script, Cheslik is quick to offer feedback and suggestions.

Teaching assistant Pam Siebert, 28, who works as a software tester for IBM in Kansas and is deaf, said Cheslik is a natural leader, not only because he is one of the oldest and most experienced students in the class, but because of his enthusiasm.

“He radiates positive energy,” Siebert said in an eMail message.

Cheslik remembers the isolation of his first two years in high school, where he was the only deaf student and communicated with others through an interpreter. But in his final two years, he said, he joined the cross-country and track teams, took advanced math and science classes, and found friends who learned sign language so they could communicate with him.

Still, he said, the UW program has been exciting–in large part, because he’s surrounded by deaf students.

“Here, it’s much easier to express yourself. At community college, it’s not as easy to have a spontaneous conversation,” he notes.

Cheslik, who plans to transfer to UW next year, also is enjoying his first experience of living on his own.

“My parents thought I’d be homesick, but that’s not the case,'” he said through an interpreter.

Jordan Atwood, 18, the other Washington native in the program, graduated from Eastlake High School in Sammamish in June and will enter UW in fall. He speaks and hears with the help of a hearing aid and lip reading.

His communication challenges this summer were different from most of the other students’. He uses Signed Exact English, a visual representation of spoken English, rather than the more widely used ASL, and had not signed daily since the fourth grade.

When the UW academy started, he said, “I could not sign to save my life.”

Atwood said the visits to the local high-tech firms have been among the highlights of the program. Wearing a Google T-shirt that shows the company logo against a background of Mount Rainier, he said, “It’s encouraging to meet deaf professionals and to realize I could get into a field like that.”

If the young men in the course are excited about the program, the young women are ecstatic. Siebert, the IBM tester, is taking two weeks of her own vacation time, plus two weeks donated by her employer, to be here.

“There aren’t a lot of women in computer sciences, and there are even fewer deaf women,” she said through an interpreter. “To be able to work with these students and be a role model, it’s really thrilling.'”

Cheslik said one of his goals is to research technologies that can help bridge the gap between the hearing and non-hearing worlds. He said several new technologies, including texting and GPS systems, were first invented for people with disabilities.

The summer academy, he said, “is really about encouraging deaf kids to be diligent, to not give up, to believe that their ideas can make a difference.”


UW Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing

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