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Inspiration generated from her frustration

Deaf DePaul PhD does pioneering work
From the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, Friday, June 13, 2008
By Melissa Patterson, Tribune reporter

Karen Alkoby remembers intimately the frustration of being unable to speak her mind. Growing up deaf in Chicago schools at a time when sign language was seen as an inferior and forbidden way to communicate, she recalls being tapped on the head with chalk if she signed.

Alkoby, 45, said it was on the playground where she learned the language that finally allowed her to express herself: American Sign Language, or ASL. Today, she is the pioneer behind a computerized dictionary in the works at DePaul University that can translate written English into ASL, opening new doors to communication for the deaf.

On Sunday she will blaze another trail, becoming the first deaf woman in U.S. history to attain a doctorate in computer science, according to DePaul.

Professors said her dissertation work on the human perception of three-dimensional symbols as they relate to hand gesturing may someday lay the groundwork for an ASL-to-English dictionary, a far greater technical challenge.

"If it wasn't for ASL I know I wouldn't be here," Alkoby said through an interpreter, gesturing passionately. "As a tool to express yourself and receive information and have full communication, it was so ingrained in me—whereas before I'd never had that feeling of it. [Language] was always a limiting force."

The English-to-ASL dictionary uses a computer-animated figure, dubbed Paula, to interpret English words typed into the program and gesture them in ASL.

It's designed for quick encounters where hiring an interpreter would be impractical.

But sign language is not without its challenges. Because ASL is newer and much less standardized than English, Alkoby said, the study and classification of signals necessary to create a dictionary is difficult.

To address the problem, she conducted an experiment with 30 deaf volunteers and 30 hearing volunteers to determine how the human brain interprets shapes like those made by hands in ASL.

The results might someday help non-ASL speakers interpret sign language in emergency situations, said John McDonald, a DePaul associate computing professor and one of Alkoby's research colleagues.

Though dozens of professors and students have contributed to DePaul's ASL research over the last decade, Alkoby's passion and persistence got the project off the ground and engaged her colleagues' interest in ASL, said DePaul computing professor Rosalee Wolfe.

Wolfe said she has taken seven years of ASL classes at Columbia College.

"She was the one who inspired this all," Wolfe said. "She inspired me to go back to school and learn a new language."

Alkoby of West Rogers Park said she plans to continue her research into perception of the building blocks for ASL words or hand shapes, possibly through post-doctoral work or a professorship.

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune

Deaf Ethiopian Israeli given opportunity to study graphics

Jun. 2, 2008
Ehud Zion Waldoks , THE JERUSALEM POST

Ilana Mekonen, 27, is a first year student in the visual communication track at Netanya's ORT Hermelin College of Engineering.

Mekonen's circumstances stand out from most of her fellow students - she has been deaf since birth. She is part of a singular program at the college that caters to the hard of hearing and the deaf.

"I encountered graphic design in high school and I wanted to continue but on a higher and deeper level. Because I think that if someone wants to be an expert, then they can't just take another course. I have to learn it at the college level. I also hope that it will give me more opportunities to get a better job," Mekonen told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

The track includes courses in art, art history, typography and printing.

"A potential employer can see the difference in education," Mekonen said. "Without the context, one would just be working robotically."

The Post caught up with her in a four-way telephone exchange. This reporter relayed questions to Iris Wolf, the school's dean of students, who relayed them to Etti, Mekonen's translator, who signed them to Mekonen. The chain then went into reverse to convey Mekonen's replies.

Mekonen was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel when she was three. She is the child of a deaf father and a hearing mother. Two of her eight siblings are also deaf, and study in an institution for the deaf. Several of her aunts are also deaf.

She, her husband and daughter (both of whom are also deaf) live with five of her siblings and her mother in Hadera. The family made aliya together and lived in an absorption center in Tiberias. They moved to Nahariya and eventually settled in Hadera.

Finding the right school was not simple for Mekonen.

"I started at a different college to do a course that I was sent to by the National Insurance Institute. I needed a translator, so I sent an SMS to a group of translators, and Etti was the only one who was available to translate that day.

"After I entered the class and even after Etti translated, I still couldn't understand the lecture. I didn't understand what I was going to study. It was Etti who realized that I was sitting in a computer programming class and that this is not what I wanted. The classroom was also small and crowded and I wasn't sitting in the right spot to be able to follow. I wanted more graphic design. The emphasis there was on the computer and not on the programs," she said.

After that first mishap, Mekonen applied to another college.

"I tried to get into another institution, but they rejected me because I was deaf. I tried to convince them that it was not fair. However, they didn't accept that they would have to bring a translator into every class. They said a translator was like 'dirt on the stage,' and did not reflect well on the classroom aesthetically.

"I tried to work with the professor, but she said, 'Why would I work with a translator? You should try to use the hearing aid,'" Mekonen recalled.

Mekonen does have a hearing aid, but still cannot hear words. "I read lips. Without the aid, I can't hear anything. With the aid, I can hear voices and it is easier to read lips but it is not at the level of words."

"It takes a long time to learn how to read lips, but there are apparently sounds like my name, Ilana, that I recognize. However, someone might say something very similar and I will answer," she noted wryly.

It was Etti who encouraged her to apply to ORT Hermelin.

"Etti told me about the college and told me to talk to the people and bring them my credentials and see if I could fit in here. I brought diplomas, and sat with the head of the department with a translator. I was surprised that there was advance preparation on their part for my interview. Leora [Rubikoff, the program coordinator,] interviewed me and escorted me throughout the whole registration process.

"It was already two weeks into the semester and I needed a little help to catch up. I got help and made up the material much faster than I thought I would. Now that I am already studying, I am even more sure that this is the profession I want," Mekonen said.

At the end of her first year, Mekonen is very pleased.

"The year was at first hard. I had to get used to the faculty, the college course load. As it went on, it smoothed out. The material is interesting and I feel like I have made progress professionally," she said.

In terms of access and assistance, Mekonen had nothing but praise.

"There is a translator with me at all times. The administration team is very tolerant of deaf people, and that has never happened to me before. In lectures, they make the professor take into account that I am there and so they write more on the board. The students have also gotten used to the fact that the professor explains more slowly and in greater depth [for my benefit]. Once, the translator came late and the professor talked slowly and wrote a lot more on the board to make sure I understood until she came.

"When we learn the graphics programs, they give me an instructor who helps me fill in what I don't understand," she added.

Mekonen did have some constructive criticism for the National Insurance Institute.

"It is important that the NII should know there are costs over and above the tuition and translator. For example, equipment for the job, computer programs and extra tutoring," she told the Post.

The school also helps her navigate the NII bureaucracy.

"I have to go there in person every time [since she can't talk on the phone] and find the specific official who handles my file. I would like them to be more accessible to the deaf. There are technologies that exist already that can help, such as e-mail and SMS," she said.

Wolf said the NII did help out in part.

Those same modern technologies give Mekonen hope that she will be able to hold a regular job without too much trouble.

"E-mail and SMS give me an advantage. I can work through the computer and they don't even need to know I am deaf," she said.


Marlee Matlin is working on her memoir

Posted: 2008-06-11 07:24:46

NEW YORK (AP) - Academy Award-winning actress and "Dancing With the Stars" sensation Marlee Matlin is working on a memoir, scheduled to come out in 2009 and tentatively titled "I'll Scream Later."

"As a young girl, I imagined myself as Marcia Brady who just happened to be deaf, skating down the street saying hi to everyone I knew," Matlin, an Oscar winner in 1987 for "Children of a Lesser God," said in a statement issued Tuesday by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

"But today, as a mom of four, I'm no longer Marcia. I've morphed into Alice, the Maid. Goodbye, Marcia, Marcia, Marcia."

According to Simon Spotlight, the 42-year-old Matlin will confide about her "unresolved issues and battles with addiction and abuse, many of which she kept hidden from the public and her family." She also will "delve into her loves and life in Hollywood," including such television shows as "Picket Fences," "The Practice" and "The West Wing."

Her previous books include a novel, "Deaf Child Crossing," and the young people's stories "Leading Ladies" and "Nobody's Perfect."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

COMMENT: Rabbi says deaf ‘ineligible for conversion’

[Posted in deafbiz.com under "Current Affairs, Deaf, deaf culture"]
When I attended a Jewish Day School (called Yeshiva), I remember a class lesson on conversion. Rule #1 in conversion - You cannot convert to Judaism to just marry someone you love. Being Jewish is more than just a piece of paper. It means keeping kosher, attending the synagogue, educating your children in Judaism, follow the mitzvahs (as best as you can) but above all, to live in a Jewish life to the best of your beliefs. Not to say “I’m Jewish, now let’s get married, and please pass the bacon.”

This deaf lady wanted to convert to Judaism to marry someone she loved. The rabbis should’ve ruled that it’s impermissible to marry for love, and stop right there. But no, that’s not the reason why she couldn’t convert. The reason is that “those who cannot hear, cannot fulfill mitzvoth and therefore, believes rabbinical court in 2008, cannot convert to Judaism.” And that’s what this controversy is all about.

Keep in mind that I’m not ignoring or putting down the rest of the non-Orthodox in the Jewish Deaf Communities. The issue is that the ruling was made by a group of Orthodox Rabbis interpreting the Torah and the Jewish Laws their way. So I want to focus on this from their Orthodox angle.

What is an Orthodox Jew? “Orthodox Judaism has held fast to such practices as daily worship, dietary laws, intensive study of the Torah, and separation of men and women in the synagogue.” In other words, to worship daily is a Mitzvah, to study the Torah is a Mitzvah, etc. (Mitzvots is a plural form of Mitzvah). So basically the Rabbinical Court is saying that deaf Jews can’t pray, can’t study the Torah, etc. And this is not the first time they’ve ruled this way. There has been numerous rulings against the Jewish Deaf people simply because can’t do mitzvots. What’s different is that this is year 2008 and we know now that Jewish Deaf are capable of performing Mitzvots, and that the Rabbinical Court needs to be educated why this ruling is so outdated today.

The Israeli Rabbinical Court should visit Baltimore where Orthodox Rabbi Fred Friedman and Rabbi David Kastor lives.

The Israeli Rabbinical Court should visit Nefesh Dovid, the world’s only Orthodox Deaf Yeshiva High School for boys in Toronto.

The Israeli Rabbinical Court should attend the annual Melave Malka held by Beth Torah of the Deaf in Brooklyn, NY where many Orthodox Jewish Deaf gather once a year.

I personally call on Orthodox Rabbi Eliezer Liederfiend of NCSY- Our Way to immediately call the Chief Rabbinical Court to tell them not only that their reasons for their ruling is wrong, but that it is so damaging and dangerous to the Jewish Deaf Community.

The Jewish Deaf community is already facing an estimated 90%+ interfaith marriage rate. The Jewish Deaf community is facing intense pressure from the Christian Missionaries. This ruling is just adding fuel to the fires. I’m willing to bet that the Christian Missionaries are already printing copies of this article to show the next time they target a Jewish Deaf to convert. Oh yea, this will make their job a lot easier!

I don’t think the Rabbis have thought of the consequences of this ruling. And the Chief Rabbinical Court have made a mockery of Judaism, because this is just one of the many crazy and inconsiderate rulings to date. For the sake of the ENTIRE JEWISH COMMUNITY, The Chief Rabbinical Court deserved to be roundly condemned and replaced immediately!

Update: The Rabbinical Court can be enlighted right in their backyard with the Orthodox organization - Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel’s Judaic Heritage Program for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired.



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