Technology helps hearing-impaired Houston students communicate

acastillo@macon.comApril 25, 2011 

WARNER ROBINS -- During class Wednesday afternoon at Houston County High School, freshman Jasmine Cooke called another class at Matt Arthur Elementary. When no one there picked up, she left a message -- all without speaking a word.

Instead, Cooke, who is deaf, signed the message through a videoconferencing device called a VPAD that is similar to a tablet computer, complete with a touchscreen, camera and its own stand. On the screen, the video call Cooke made looked similar to Skype.

Houston County High, along with Mossy Creek Middle and Matt Arthur Elementary, each received a VPAD this year and can communicate with each other with the devices.

The three schools serve the county’s 30 deaf and hard-of-hearing students and are the only ones in Middle Georgia using VPADs in the classroom, said Jenny McClintic, a special education program specialist with Houston County schools.

“It’s a very positive thing for us,” said Carla Berghult, who teaches deaf and hard of hearing students at Houston County High and who herself is deaf. “Technology -- it keeps changing for the deaf and so we’re trying to keep up with it.”

In her message to Matt Arthur, Cooke said she was excited about the upcoming Houston County Special Olympics on May 6.

“I really enjoy communicating with them,” Cooke said.

The high school students use the VPADs to help younger students with math problems, sign them stories and other activities, Cooke said. Berghult also uses the VPADs to communicate with the parents of the students in her class.

One challenge for those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing is communicating emotion over the phone, Berghult said.

Historically, those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing use relay services to communicate by phone. For the most part, that involves an interpreter converting text to voice and vice versa. Some relay services use video to allow the deaf and hard-of-hearing to use sign language in order to express their messages to an interpreter more easily.

Though the VPAD has the capacity to make calls using relay services, the videoconferencing technology allows users to communicate directly with one another.

“We can see the expressions, the body movements and everything. I can understand the message better if I can see it,” Berghult said. “lf you just type and send it in a text message, you can’t really tell the expression. We prefer the visual.”

Berghult hopes the technology will allow the students in her class to become more independent and assist in day-to-day tasks, such as making a doctor’s appointment or ordering a pizza.

“It’s opened up opportunities for them,” Berghult said. “They’re able to do more than before. Before, they felt really limited, but now, there’s more opportunities for them.”

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.

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