Technology: An Indispensable Tool for Deaf-Blind People

Anindya “Bapin” Bhattacharyya was born deaf in a small village in India, where there was no running water, electricity, or motor vehicles. He became blind at age nine after another child threw ashes in his eyes, causing his retinas to detach. With no education for deaf-blind people, Bapin sat at home with nothing to do for four years.
Fortunately, Bhattacharyya was able to secure a scholarship to study at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., and a generous businessman introduced to the family through the princiipal of a blind school in Kolkata funded his airfare to the United States. He continued his education, graduating from the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, in 1998 with a B.A. in political science, and today is an adaptive technology instructor with the Helen Keller National Center and owns a business that produces adaptive or assistive technology products for deaf people who also are blind, low vision, or have other disabilities.

Bhattacharyya addressed a Gallaudet audience on November 14 as part of the University’s 150th lecture series. His presentation, “The Power of Technology Leads to Self-Success,” credited advances in technology for the enormous opportunities that have opened for people with disabilities, particularly deaf-blind people. Even Keller, who in the late nineteenth century amazed the world by proving the capabilities of deaf-blind people, had to rely on Anne Sullivan, her instructor and companion, for everything, said Bhattacharyya. “We no longer have to rely on one, single solitary person to provide us that access (that technology can give us), but can now engage in our world through the use of technology,” he said.

Thanks to technology, Bhattacharyya is able to communicate with anyone around the world, many of them not knowing he is deaf-blind. But he is not completely independent: He still has trouble locating and using automated teller machines, On the other hand, Bhattacharyya can catch a flight or a train with the help of an iPhone, and thanks to a special global position system manufactured by Sendero Group, he can find the location of streets-even places to eat pizza.
Today, Bhattacharyya trains deaf-blind people to use adaptive technology to live independently through his job at the Keller Center, and sells adaptive technology and computer hardware/software products online from his business, BapinGroup, which is based in northern California. As an advocate for deaf-blind citizens and on the Helen Keller National Center’s behalf, he meets with government officials in Washington, D.C. to address the needs of deaf-blind citizens and the importance of technology in their lives. Thanks to his efforts, the Federal Communications Commission started the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program which allows low-income deaf-blind individuals to access 21st century communications services through training, outreach, and assessment.

Following Bhattacharyya’s presentation, Art Rhoerig, ’68 & G-’74, retired human development counselor for the Office of Students with Disabilities, and who has known Bapin since he visited the Gallaudet campus in 1987, said Gallaudet was the only choice in the world during the 1960s for deaf-blind people like him who wanted to earn a college degree. “If I had to do it all over again, I would absolutely pick Gallaudet,” said Roehrig, because there is no other institution of higher learning that offers the same level of participation to deaf-blind students. Rhoerig asked Bhattacharyya how deaf-blind users can reduce the fatigue that using computers induces. He suggested that deaf-blind users make sure they position their Braille display where it works best for them to understand messages on the computer screen. “It’s very important for deaf-blind individuals to know themselves well enough to know how the equipment can best work for them,” said Bhattacharyya.

Nadia Damato, a blind hearing student majoring in interpreting, said she chose to come to Gallaudet because of its high reputation in interpreting, and because there is a deaf-blind community on campus. Damato joined a November 19 panel of deaf-blind Gallaudet students and alumni who shared their experiences and offered possible solutions to the unique challenges they face daily. Lisa van der Mark, a senior in psychology from the Netherlands, commented that Bhattacharyya’s lecture was both inspirational and entertaining. “My favorite part in Bapin’s lecture was when he talked about his contacts with his son by FaceTime, which is very cute and sweet,” she said.

Planning this lecture was different from the other lectures, since there were 24 deaf-blind attendees in the audience, said Nancy DeWitt, Gallaudet Interpreting Service staff interpreter and coordinator for deaf-blind people. “It was a big challenge because many deaf-blind people have their own preferences and style with accommodations,” she said, explaining that some deaf-blind people prefer tactile interpreters, while others prefer close vision TV.

“Bapin is in a unique place because he can test equipment and give feedback to various technology companies,” said Dr. Brian Greenwald, a member of the Sesquicentennial Steering Committee and a professor in the Department of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Sociology. “He is in a position where he can influence technology for future generations of deaf-blind people.”

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