The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf
Promoting Excellence in Deaf Education

Discussion document about appropriate 'Communication Aids' for Deaf Children

  1. About this information
    The IT information on this page is taken from the Deaf Children's Communication Aids Project (DCCAP). The information was originally provided to stimulate discussion and brainstorming of ideas and obtain feedback about the 'communication aid' technologies that could be used with for deaf children.

  2. Suitability of technologies
    It is essential to demonstrate how any technology recommended would make an impact on the child's life and communication and education and show how they would use it at school. The school/teachers have to be prepared to integrate this technology into the curriculum. Any accompanying costs (eg telephone charges, technical support, insurance, consumables etc) must be met by the school/LEA/parents or identified source.

  3. Speech recognition technology as an aid to receptive aural communication
    A speech recognition system based on a radio microphone and laptop computer can provide real time text transcription of teachers, parents and other pupils' speech. There has to be an enrolment (this may take from half an hour to several hours) for each speaker to train the system to their voice by reading a passage displayed on the screen. Speaker independent systems that require no enrolment will be available in the future.

    The system allows speech and text to be saved for later re-use by the child or teacher or parent (eg to go over the work again explaining any words/concepts not understood and correcting any errors, both for the benefit of the child and to improve future recognition by the system).

    Since the speech recognition system requires a laptop computer, the child could also use the laptop with other software (eg word-processing) if the specification ensured it did not degrade speech recognition performance.

    The hardware will have to be very robust and portable. It is possible to use a remote wireless screen for the child. This would mean that the laptop (used by a teacher, learning support assistant or other staff member), would not need to be carried around a room by the child as the laptop screen would be replicated on the wireless screen.

  4. Speech recognition technology as an aid to expressive written communication
    Speech recognition systems can also be used by children as an alternative to typing information at the keyboard (as has been used by children who have mobility difficulties or dyslexic children who have difficulty transferring their thoughts into written language). Since speech recognition technology can be trained to recognise the way an individual speaks it may have some potential to help some Deaf children with their expressive communication.

  5. Speech recognition technology as an aid to expressive oral communication
    Speech recognition systems may have some potential for improving the intelligibility of a child's speech by encouraging clear pronunciation to get better recognition. In theory speech recognition technology might be able to understand a deaf child's speech better than some people could and so be used to automatically translate a child's speech into text for display to others. This text could also be translated into synthetic speech as described below.

  6. Speech synthesis and/or text displays as an aid to expressive oral communication
    deaf children who have speech that is unintelligible to some/many people may benefit from communication aids that provide a text or spoken output in a similar way to those used by children who are not deaf but have speech and language difficulties.

  7. Speech synthesis as an aid to receptive and expressive written communication
    Synthetic speech output of displayed text may be of benefit for children with suitable hearing who have difficulty reading and writing.

  8. Textphones/SMS/email/Internet
    Technology such as computers, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), mobile phones, allow children to access SMS, textphones, email and the Internet. Accessing the Internet using mobile phone technology is slower than using standard fixed networks although this has considerabnly improved in recent years.

  9. Word processors
    Laptop computers with word processors, spellcheckers, thesaurus, electronic dictionary, word prediction, mind mapping etc could help with written communication.

  10. Sign language skills development
    CD-ROMS and on-line video are available to help develop knowledge of sign language. It is technically possible to automatically 'translate' text to sign language (with sign language video clips on the hard disk for fast access) and to combine this with speech recognition to first automatically transcribe the speaker's words into text to automatically turn the speaker's words into sign language. (This has been done in the USA but there does not yet appear to be any UK software that does this) However this would probably be 'word for word signing' (Sign Supported English - SSE) rather than BSL, although there is research going on currently how to translate text into BSL. There is no simple way to be able to automatically translate sign language into written text, although it is technically possible to look up signs in a visual dictionary to find the text 'equivalent'.

  11. Portable notetaking devices
    If deaf children could learn to touch-type they could use a portable notetaking device (eg Laptop, Alphasmart, Microwriter type five key/finger input device etc) to help them take notes in class while being able to look at and lip-read the speaker without having to look down at their notes.

  12. Videoconferencing equipment
    Videoconferencing equipment for children who need sign language and/or lipreading to communicate at a distance could be used in school and/or at home. This would encourage the development of peer groups and social development for those deaf children who are geographically isolated. It is now possible (2011) to use video conferencing via mobile phones or using MSN or Skype.

  13. Digital cameras and video editing equipment
    Digital cameras and video editing equipment could allow deaf children who use sign language to communicate to produce video 'essays' in BSL. Such devices also encourage the development of recording and sequencing skills for children with emergent and developing language skills.

  14. Wireless video camera to aid lip-reading
    A wireless video camera worn round the neck could provide a clear large video image of the speaker's face even if the speaker turns away, is at a distance or has their face obscured by another child's head etc.

  15. Software and peripherals to improve speech, listening and written language skills
    Software and hardware is available to help improve speech intelligibility and develop listening and writing skills. Many are listed in the Catalogue on the Becta website and the BATOD Magazine also carries reviews and examples of good practice.


Helpful ICT DCCAP identified and much of which still applies in 2011

There is a burgeoning amount of IT software and hardware available that can help deaf children develop communication skills. The ICT Newspage keeps Teachers of the Deaf (ToDs) aware of much of this but actually finding the time to become familiar with and use it as a matter of course presents logistical challenges. As a result of meeting many ToDs and discussing these issues the Project Development Officers have identified a few main items as a introduction. Demonstration disks and helpful websites mean that you can try before you buy.

  1. Organisation
    Everyone needs some organisation in preparing activities.
    1. personal organisation
      Learn to use Outlook (not Outlook Express!) which is a complete time manager as well an e-mail facility. Apart from your regular diary and appointments keep a 'to do' list and also the finer details and print them out if you need to. You can even make the diary look like your filofax pages! This whole system, including your address book will also transport to the Palm diaries that many people are getting familiar with. The beauty of this is that if the computer crashes the copy is also on the regularly updated Palm, or if you lose you diary (or even the Palm) there is still a copy of the whole thing safely accessible. When you are familiar with the different features then teach your pupils… the task list holds homework deadlines and details, timetabled lessons and meetings and they can move information about in, or attached to, e-mails.

    2. organising coursework
      Organising written course work or thoughts in a logical pattern is always a challenge. Many enthusiastic reports have been gathered about the progress of deaf children who have been introduced to mind mapping software.

    3. mind mapping
      Why do we need it? What is the value to deaf children? One of the challenges when explaining things to deaf children is the need for concrete representation of thoughts - deaf children may think in pictures (Kidspiration) or word prompts (Inspiration / Mind Genius).

    Whether gathering thoughts about today's news or writing up a science experiment this type of programme is proving very successful with many ToDs and their pupils.

  2. Planning
    Draft Builder allows a more verbal approach - actually collecting thoughts as outline, notes on the key words, collecting and organizing into shape for final essay.

    Look for easily accessible word processors - many with pictorial menus and most now talking eg Write out Loud, Textease and even Word will speak with help from some of the software programmes.

    1. Word
      Max's Sandbox This is a new overlay for the Office suite that changes the menu bars at various levels to child-friendly graphics. There are some interesting features including a drawing facility that allows the use of either preset pictures which can be coloured in or a freehand opportunity.

    2. Textease
      The whole suite, Textease Studio Plus, is similar to Office though much more comprehensive with a word processor, spreadsheet, database, art package, turtle, branch, presenter, and other resources and programmes specifically for teachers. Pupils have the benefit of vocabulary and picture lists that can be added to according to the current topics and requirements.

    3. Widgit
      Writing with symbols from Widgit Software is in regular use with children with severe communication difficulties - and those who have difficulty using text. It is also very effective for BSL users. In at least two H-I Services English worksheets are recreated into pictorial BSL based format - integrating word and graphics.

    4. Note-taking systems
      The Stereotype wireless link that was developed at Sheffield Hallam University has potential for the older pupil. During trials the importance of expertise in notetaking and also a reasonable typing speed (in excess of 60 wpm!) have been identified. The pupils do not seem too concerned with the responsibility of managing two laptops and a notetaker though they have pointed out the time required to set the system up was more than they originally estimated.

      Whilst a dedicated notetaking system such as Stereotype is effective in some situations the remote touch sensitive screen linked to a Panasonic laptop has allowed several students the freedom to remain with a peer group without an adult 'velcroed' to them and still have access to a laptop situated remotely. Not only can a CSW type in 'minutes' of the lesson but the pupil concerned can also control the laptop from the remote screen and so be able to use various programmes.

    5. Predictive software
      Texthelp and Co-writer 4000 offer possible opportunities for the next word in the sentence. The pupil does need to be able to chose the correct spelling. Co-writer 4000 offers the correct grammatical structures (it is a grammar-smart word coach to build better sentences) so it picks up on the 'small words' that many deaf children omit. Personalised vocabulary lists and phrases can be built up.

    6. Wordbars and dictionaries
      Wordbars and dictionaries that can be associated with word-processing packages are very useful. It is possible to build up word and phrase banks in discussion with the pupil who can then work independently to create the piece of work. Cricksoft Wordbar is based on the very successful Clicker programme and as more ToDs become familiar with this successful range of software it is being used more innovatively. Developmental work is being carried out using animated BSL signs that may help some children communicate more effectively with non signing people as well as make the link across to English.

      One gizmo that dyslexic pupils find useful at a more advanced level is the Quickionary scan pen ( Other possible materials were covered by Abi James in the Dec 2002 Magazine

    Presentation - appearance
    1. Learn to type
      When the first minicoms appeared it was obvious that everyone using them would have to develop typing skills. As the computer keyboard is an integral part of many childrens' lives it could be expected that everyone can touch-type. Incorrect assumption - most people 'peck' at the keys with two fingers, eyes glued to the keyboard. By learning to touch-type a deaf person could watch the face of the speaker and type what is being said without looking down…. An advantage over a hearing person who has to keep watching where the pen wanders! There are two programmes that have attracted youngsters to develop typing skills and there are many others - Sunburst,Type to Learn and Kaz have been used with deaf pupils.

    2. Writing/drawing skills
      For those children with an emerging vocabulary drawing the word or idea is an option though it is not easy with a mouse or a touchpad. Using a graphics tablet which has a pen shaped 'mouse' allows good drawings to be made and saved or imported directly into the word processor (in Max's Sandbox this is part of the easy interface). For those lucky enough to have the new Windows platform XP and a matching version of Word it is possible to activate the handwriting recognition option and so plenty of writing practice can take place!

    3. AlphaSmart
      Produce tidy written work using an easily transportable AlphaSmart. The AlphaSmart can make written communication much easier for students with handwriting or spelling difficulties. It is an inexpensive battery-powered word processor that provides text entry and editing and easy one-key transfer to a PC or Macintosh (or some Acorns) for formatting and printing. The AlphaSmart 3000 is a very economical way of providing basic word processing facilities in a simple, small, light, robust and easily portable format. It can hold up to eight files, each containing up to 12 ˝ pages of text. The AlphaSmart weighs less than 1kg and its AA-type batteries can last up to 500 hours.

    4. Digital photography
      Some aspects of technology are so immediate in their educational appeal that they capture the imagination of teachers. A digital camera is a wonderful device to provide opportunities to capture real-life images for easy transfer (via USB or disk) to the computer or television screen. From there the pictures can be inserted into most software and text added - at the level of the child concerned!

      Many digital cameras can record short video clips so a video camera is not essential. For those lucky groups with digital video cameras the ‘firewire’ technology means that filmed sequences can be transferred quickly to a computer. The new Windows platform XP provides a movie maker editing suite as part of the package. There are many helpful Magazines and courses are being developed to facilitate ToDs who want to use this technology.

      Digital cameras offer a host of uses within education including:

      • enhancing written work
      • getting images for Web pages
      • recording student progress and activities
      • photographing bulky work samples
      • adding images on cards which are then laminated (eg library)
      • learning about photography
      • recording information on excursions
      • clothing or food preparation activities
      • e-mail attachments for global projects
      • sequencing

    Communicate over a distance
    Across the UK many schools are now taking part in video-conferencing with the advantage of visiting the National Records Office or the Science museum for a specific purpose without leaving the classroom. The possibly 'high' costs can be put into perspective when compared with the cost of travelling, time needed and the amount of preparation that is essential. There are several video-conferencing projects underway at the moment attempting to provide peer groups for remote deaf children and also the potential to link up ToDs for training. The BATOD Conference in 2008 took place at three venues using this technology with a subsquent 'record' attendance!

    Banish isolation
    One exciting development is the use of video conferencing with isolated deaf pupils in rural areas, providing and sharing quality training without having to travel huge distances (or even negotiate traffic jams!) for services and course providers. Most of the University training ToD courses also use electronic contact in various forms to enable students to take part in courses, do research and keep in touch with tutors.

    Spice up coursework
    Reminding deaf children of sequences, or what has happened at home to elicit language and conversation is greatly enhanced when photography is used. Getting familiar with digital (and therefore ‘instant’) photography (both still and video) will enable you to help your deaf youngsters produce some excellent work.

    Improving language skills
    Co-writer 4000 has such exciting possibilities when you are familiar with the programme - even suggesting the correct grammatical structure - that you will soon find it an essential tool on your computer. For secondary-aged pupils and those writing their dissertations for higher degrees Draft Builder is a valuable tool. Not only does it help to structure essay writing but it also has a bibliography and resource reference constructor so the painful task of finishing off a good piece of work is minimised.

    DCCAP discovered many deaf youngsters who have cerebral palsy (CP) and who have no identifiable provisions made to help them. There are several articles available in BATOD Magazines in past years and the SCOPE website is also able to help.