ICTs and minorities: Deaf students no longer excluded from IT

By EsLaRed     MERIDA, 16 July 2009

Internet training for the deafInternet training for the deafFrom March 3 to July 10 2009, the first training in IT Essentials by the Cisco Networking Academy for a group including six deaf participants took place in Merida, Venezuela.

This course was a milestone for the deaf in our city, who not only acquired basic tools for their individual development, but also the mechanisms to transmit the acquired knowledge to other deaf people in the community. This experience was an initiative by the Latin American Networks School Foundation and was funded by the Internet Society, whose main tenet is that minorities can benefit from information and communication technologies to access new employment opportunities and achieve personal growth.

Deaf communities inmost developing countries face similar problems. One of them is the lack of programmes specifically designed for the local Sign Languages of their communities. In Venezuela for example, although the Constitution states the right of linguistic minorities (and the deaf community is globally regarded as such) to receive education in their own language, in practice this is rarely accomplished because, on the one hand, there are no professionals who appropriately handle the two languages involved: Spanish and Venezuelan Sign Language (LSV) and, on the other hand, there are no curricula tailored to the needs of the deaf.

This experience, successfully completed with four deaf students certified by the Cisco Networking Academy in the IT Essentials program is unique in our country, and we believe it could be exported to other communities.

Summary of the experience:

An initial group of deaf people with the following requirements was selected: good self-learning abilities; interest in communication and information technologies, and time for extra activities. Given the conditions of the group, this course could have been longer than usual, which is a potential obstacle in terms of time allocation. In our country, if a deaf person is fortunate enough to have a steady job, getting permission to pursue other activities during office hours can pose an additional difficulty. Once the group of six was formed (four men and two women), the Cisco Academy of the Latin American Networks School Foundation (EsLaRed) in Mérida, assigned six scholarships for the deaf students. The course was held in the networks lab, Labred, of the Universidad de los Andes. The Lab, specially equipped for this kind of training is also EsLaRed’s headquarters.

Deaf participants receive their certificate and computer portal.Deaf participants receive their certificate and computer portal.

As a second step, we proceeded to look for a sign language interpreter (Venezuelan Sign Language (LSV) – Spanish) who would work as a human interface between the instructor of the course on the one side, and the deaf and non-deaf participants (13 people in all) on the other. One of the difficulties we faced was that the interpreter hired for the job left (for personal reasons) after only three weeks. Despite this, it is worth pointing outneither the students nor the instructor were left dispirited by this incident and, in less than a week, one of the deaf students (the only one with good residual hearing and lip reading abilities) assumed the double task of interpreting and taking the course at the same time. This difficulty was also minimised by the fact that a significant human relationship between the instructor and the group of deaf students, and among deaf and hearing participants had already built up. In this way, the training concluded successfully, and four of the six deaf students successfully completed the course requirements. The remaining two students will have a second opportunity to repeat the course and obtain certification in an upcoming training.

The fact that a local research group (Project: Impairment and Communication) joined this effort and made a special donation to the group of deaf participants by donatinga modern laptop for each successful student is also noteworthy. The laptops are also equipped with speech synthesis software developed by researchers in the same group, which allows users to convert written text into speech. Needless to say, the applications of such a program in the daily lives of deaf people are invaluable.

At the time of this report, the certified deaf students are highly committed to the project of transmitting knowledge to others in the deaf community and a training course to acquire the necessary tools to teach IT Essentials in the community has already been scheduled. With this last step, the potential future problems with (hearing) interpreters are circumvented. Moreover, researchers from the Impairment and Communication project have planned a training workshop on the use of the voice synthesis software which will take place next week. In short, this experience has represented what real human networking is about. More than a happy ending, it is an excellent start.

photo by: Garik Lawson Asplund and EsLaRed