By Bianca P. Floyd
As the only deaf child in his school, David Stewart faced the daunting task of trying to make friends with his hearing classmates. In one-on-one situations he could carry on conversations, but in groups of three or more he found himself left out. Now, decades later, Mr. Stewart and some colleagues at Michigan State University have created software and a Web site to help children with hearing impairments communicate with their hearing peers.
The Personal Communicator CD-ROM and the companion Web site, called the American Sign Language Browser, contain more than 2,500 digitized video clips of American Sign Language interpretations of more than 4,500 English words. Mr. Stewart, a professor of educational psychology who is coordinator of the deaf-education program at Michigan State, says the software helps deaf students use their sign-language skills to learn new English words and to improve their awareness of the link between A.S.L. signs and words. It helps families and teachers of the deaf learn A.S.L., too.
Lacking a natural ability to hear how words sound and how they are spoken, most severely to profoundly deaf children find learning English a difficult task, says Mr. Stewart, whose own hearing loss began during childhood and worsened later.
As a child, he dared not volunteer answers to questions in class for fear that he might have misunderstood the teacher. "I did not want to suffer the humiliation of saying something that had nothing to do with the question asked," he says. To compensate, he turned to sports, shooting marbles, playing cards, and taking part in other activities that did not require him to talk. The software displays a word processor with a small window that shows video clips. A user types in words -- or opens up an entire text file -- and then clicks on a "play" button to see that text signed in the video window. An English-A.S.L. dictionary and thesaurus are also included.
Mr. Stewart says the Personal Communicator helps children understand words' meanings, as well as their sign-language equivalents. "For example, the sign for the word 'rule' is the same sign for the words 'manage,' 'control,' 'in charge of,' 'direct,' and 'reign,'" he says. "By looking up any one of these words, the student not only gets the meaning of the word as it is used in English and A.S.L., but also receives a list of other words that are signed in the similar manner.
The companion Web site was not intended to be used as an instructional tool. It evolved as a secondary use of the digitized signs and explanations created for the CD-ROM project, and is designed to help people learn how to make individual signs. Like the CD-ROM, the site lets users view and replay a video as many times as needed to study hand, arm, and finger movements for each sign. Mr. Stewart says that as technology adapts to the needs of people with disabilities, such features as speech-to-text and text-to-speech capabilities will make the Internet a more flexible medium for deaf people to communicate with people who do not know how to sign. New software could translate on-line audio into text, and then convert it into signed English through the Personal Communicator.
The A.S.L. Browser Web site is free. The CD-ROM costs $56.45, and can be ordered over the Web (http://commtechlab.msu.edu/).