UTech listens to the deaf
Local university develops groundbreaking software to help persons with hearing disabilities pass CSEC
Arthur Hall, Senior News Editor
The vexing problem of deaf Jamaicans not being able to pass English at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level could soon be a thing of the past.
Students and academic staff at the University of Technology (UTech) have developed a new software geared to assist students who are deaf with preparing for their exams.
The new software, U-TOUCH, is designed to remove the biggest obstacle to the learning of English by members of the deaf community with the use of prepositions.
"The failure rate for deaf students at CSEC is more than 90 per cent, so when one or two persons pass, it is an achievement," Dr Paul Golding, associate professor and dean of the College of Business and Management at UTech, told The Sunday Gleaner.
"We found that the failure rate was that high because their language does not included prepositions. This affected their ability to develop reading and comprehension skills to pass the exam," added Golding.
TACKLING THE PROBLEM
Against that background, a team from UTech decided to tackle the problem which was affecting the life opportunities of the hundreds of persons with hearing disabilities.
The last population count recorded 75,000 persons with hearing disabilities. Of that number, 12,000 were recorded as deaf and hard of hearing, while 63,000 were reported as mild hard of hearing.
"Without a pass in English, the life chances of these deaf people are reduced early because they cannot matriculate into institutions of higher learning. So you will see them packing bags or other similar jobs.
"We decided that we want to see deaf persons matriculating into our university and going on to higher education, so we decided to work on the problem," declared Golding.
He said the work started in 2009, but the UTech team initially made a near-fatal error.
"We were throwing technology at the problem, but we were to later learn that prepositions are not part of the deaf language, so it was important for us to have a clear understanding of the problem and understand the sociocultural issues surrounding it," said Golding.
Come 2010, the team changed its approach and now, four years later and $1 million poorer, the UTech team last week handed over U-TOUCH software to students at the Lister Mair Gilby School for the Deaf.
The software uses Jamaican sign language to teach English language to deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
"The deaf students in other Caribbean countries, namely, Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana, are experiencing similar problems and this software can be adapted for these territories and to help persons with other learning disabilities," said Golding.
"This version is developed for the personal computer, but we are working on a version that can be used on smartphones and tablets so the students will always have it with them."
Golding noted that the further development of the software will need cash, and UTech is hoping the Government and the private sector will lend their support to this revolutionary and world-leading development.
"We have not yet determined how much funding we will need but we want to develop three levels: introductory, intermediate and advanced," said Golding.
"The students are very excited about this project because they see where their work is doing good in the lives of persons who are deaf and hard-of-hearing," Golding noted.
The software has already been welcomed by Education Minister Ronald Thwaites and Technology Minister Phillip Paulwell.
"This is a sign that you are fulfilling your mandate to use knowledge of science and technology to innovate useful products that can improve the quality of life for the Jamaican population," Thwaites said at the handover ceremony last week.
He noted that in addition to the 75,000 people with hearing disabilities, the software has the potential to be used to instruct another 35,000 students who are slow learners under the Alternative Secondary Transition Education Programme.
"That linkage will draw many others into the field of achievement. The Ministry of Education is anxious to facilitate the widespread training of special education and other teachers in the use of this methodology."
For his part, Paulwell argued that all disabled persons must be ready for the job world and should be gainfully employed.
"They can only be effectively and gainfully employed by utilising technology to the fullest," he said.