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RIT/NTID's Center on Access Technology: Helping Deaf Students Succeed in College

by Kathleen S. Smith

For more than 30,000 deaf students enrolled in colleges across the United States, recent technological innovations have opened new doors in terms of accessibility. These innovations include “mainstream” technologies, such as Internet, instant messaging, cellular phones, text messaging, video phones, as well as hundreds of other innovations with the potential to improve the educational experience of college-age deaf students, often with simple adaptations for use in educational settings.

In 2006, in recognition of this potential, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf – one of eight colleges at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) – created the Center on Access Technology (CAT) for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The Center’s mission is to investigate, evaluate, and report on technologies likely to directly improve access to students, particularly classroom access technologies, mobile technologies, audio and sound technologies, and training and evaluation services. By identifying and training individuals in the use of these technologies, CAT’s goal is to help accelerate the widespread utilization of “best practices” at the postsecondary level.

The Center’s main strands of research include cyber infrastructure and provision of remote services, classroom access technologies, mobile technologies, and audio and sound technologies of interest to deaf/hard-of-hearing persons.

In 2008, the Center hosted a 3-day national Summit to Create a Cyber Community to Advance Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Individuals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. Fifty leaders of both national and regional programs that provide support services for postsecondary deaf students attended the Summit to learn about ways to improve the educational experience of STEM students. The number of deaf students enrolled in STEM programs around the country has not kept pace with that of the larger deaf college-age population, in part because of a lack of specialized support services generally unavailable on college campuses.

The primary outcome of the Cyber Community Summit was a report on the current state of online remote interpreting and captioning, which are two critical support services offered to deaf students. In addition, a recommendation report outlined the characteristics of a multimedia “cyber infrastructure” that could provide remote communication support for students enrolled in STEM mainstreamed classes.

One year later, NTID received a grant of $199,585 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate the potential of a “virtual support network” for STEM students at more than 2,300 colleges around the country.

Researchers believe that an improved academic and social support network, available through a cyber infrastructure that was never before available, could significantly and positively impact student success, offsetting the current lack of quality support services in areas such as interpreting, notetaking, captioning, and counseling.

Such a cyber community network “definitely has the potential to improve the academic performance of these students,” says CAT Director Dr. James DeCaro. “These students often feel isolated in learning and social situations; a student-driven network will allow them to support each other and overcome the hurdles they often face.”

The 18-month NSF grant will help identify how many students are in STEM programs, which colleges they attend, and what resources they need in order to be successful. Partnering with the national Postsecondary Education Programs Network (PEPNet), whose regional center is located at RIT/NTID, investigators will conduct online focus groups to identify key attributes related to the academic success of current and recently graduated high school STEM students. Several colleges will be selected to partner in a possible NSF virtual alliance and to develop and pilot a prototype cyber infrastructure system to support a virtual alliance.

Principal investigator of the grant is E. William Clymer, Associate Director of the Center on Access Technology. Co-principal investigators are DeCaro; Gary Behm, who earned a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from NTID/RIT in 1981 and is now on loan to the college from IBM; and Dr. Peter Lalley, professor in the NTID Department of Science and Mathematics.

STEM programs have been integral to NTID’s technology-rich curriculum since the federally funded college was founded in the late 1960s. Today, more than 1,450 deaf/hard-of-hearing students study and live with 15,000 hearing students on the campus of RIT. These students have the unique opportunity to attend a school designed specifically for their needs while being part of a larger mainstreamed college community.

The decision to place NTID at RIT was based in large part on RIT’s international reputation of excellence in technology. The partnership between the two schools has been very successful for the past 40 plus years, as RIT/NTID graduates have gone on to positions in business, government, private industry, research, and education. And for the past 5 years, NTID’s job placement rate has been an impressive 94 percent.

When the institute was first starting out, NTID students received traditional “support services”, such as interpreting, tutoring, and notetaking; however, today’s services have expanded to include audiological services, speech and language services, and personal and career counseling. Additionally, the growing percentage of deaf/hard-of-hearing students enrolled in RIT’s baccalaureate and graduate degree programs has led to a greater focus on additional “access services”, such as real-time captioning and assistive listening systems.

The Center on Access Technology is helping to meet a need critical to the success of future college students who are deaf. With both the NSF grant and other research projects already in the works, CAT has, in just three years, established itself as a national leader in access technologies research.

For more information about CAT and its recent projects, visit http://www.ntid.rit.edu/cat/.