Program opens high-tech world to deaf students

In a University of Washington (UW) animation classroom, with colorful, cutout Pixar heroes flexing their muscles on the walls, a group of students with their own animated expressions compete to offer ideas. Most use American Sign Language (ASL) and jump to their feet to sign, so their hands can be seen above the computer monitors around the room.

This summer academy–thought to be the only one of its kind in the United States–introduces deaf and hard-of-hearing students to careers in computer sciences. For many of the participants, it’s their first glimpse inside the high-tech world. For some, it is the first time as students that they have been able to spontaneously talk to their classmates.

“It’s inspiring,” said 17-year-old Johanna Lucht, of Anchorage, through an interpreter. “It’s opening a whole new world for me.”

Funded through the National Science Foundation, the UW Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing seeks to diversify the computer-science work force and to encourage deaf and hard-of-hearing students to pursue advanced degrees and high-tech careers.

The nine-week intensive program recruits 10 outstanding math and science students ages 16 to 22 from around the U.S. This summer’s class includes deaf students from Texas, Virginia, Maine, New York, Arizona, and Indiana, as well as two from Washington.

The students live on campus, take a college-level computer-programming course, and earn a certificate in computer animation. They go on field trips to Microsoft, Google, Adobe, and Valve, a Bellevue, Wash.-based computer-game company. They meet deaf professionals at those firms and learn strategies for negotiating a hearing workplace.

And in their down time, they tour Seattle–all at no cost to the students.

Rob Roth, who coordinates the program and is himself deaf, said deaf students are more likely to be guided toward careers repairing computers than writing the software or designing new applications.

“They can do so much more,” he said.

The summer academy was the idea of Richard Ladner, a UW computer-science professor whose parents were both deaf. His father earned a degree at the University of California, Berkeley, at a time when colleges made no accommodations for students with disabilities. Both of Ladner’s parents also taught at a K-12 school for the deaf.

But Ladner said there were almost no deaf people earning doctorates in computer sciences and few academics in the field. He wanted to create a program that would not only encourage deaf students but also build their capacity for college-level work.

After three years, he said, “The students are better; the program is better. And word is getting out that we’re here.”