From smartphones to social media, technology is reshaping our world. For people with disabilities, advancements in technology and engineering have the potential to knock down long-standing barriers to communication, employment, and full community participation. ACL’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) works to translate that potential into real-life solutions that increase choices, opportunities, and accommodations.
For more than 30 years, NIDILRR has funded a variety of research projects at Gallaudet University — a pioneer in advancing educational opportunities and research for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. On June 25, HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan and ACL Administrator Lance Robertson got an up-close look at the impact of Gallaudet’s NIDILRR-funded work at the university in Washington, DC.
NIDILRR-funded projects at Gallaudet include the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Improving the Accessibility, Usability, and Performance of Technology for Individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. A key principle behind Gallaudet’s work is that people who are deaf or hard of hearing should be directly involved in developing solutions to address the barriers they experience.
“No one walks in our shoes or has our experience,” said Christian Vogler, Ph.D., Director of Gallaudet’s Technology Access Program. Involving the community in these projects ensures that technologies address real-life needs and situations. Deputy Secretary Hargan, who learned American Sign Language as a child to communicate with a friend, was eager to experience first-hand how some of this technology works. Sitting in the center of an elaborate speaker system, he experienced what it was like for people who are hard of hearing to follow a conversation while driving. Individuals experiencing hearing loss will often test a hearing aid in a clinic, but then grow frustrated when the device does not work as well in the real world. The RERC’s simulation technology helps audiologists adjust hearing aid settings to optimize communication in realistic situations and increase use and usability of hearing aids.
In the lab next door, ACL Administrator Lance Robertson watched as David Bush, a consumer participant in the research project, demonstrated how a RERC-developed tele-rehabilitation program taught him to use his cochlear implant more effectively. Bush lost his hearing as an adult due to a degenerative condition that runs in his family. He first used hearing aids, but in 2016 received a cochlear implant, which has made a “dramatic difference” in his ability to communicate with others.
Also on hand was Judy Alden, who is part of a train-the-trainer program the RERC is piloting with the Hearing Loss Association of America. The program recruits trainers who are deaf or hard of hearing to train others experiencing hearing loss in using hearing technology. It aims to increase knowledge, skills, and understanding of hearing loss. Alden, who started losing hearing in her 30s and who has used hearing aids for more than 20 years, wants to help prevent the isolation that may come with hearing loss. She has reached more than 175 health professionals, older adults, and family members through formal sessions and many more through informal networking.
Linda Kozma-Spytek captured the idea behind the project with a simple question, “who better to learn from if you're a new hearing aid learner than people who have gone through this experience before?”
Reflecting on the impact of the RERC’s work, Gallaudet University President Roberta (Bobbi) Cordano, J.D. said, “we know that the work that we're doing here is supporting the personal and professional success of deaf and hard of hearing individuals throughout their lifespan.”
“We're creating a world that is more welcoming and more supportive for deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind individuals,” President Cordano added.