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NTID, URMC partnership aims to remove barriers for deaf scientists

Feb 13, 2017

Credit freeimages.com/Jean Scheijen

A growing number of students at RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf are entering careers in science and medicine.

But the deaf and hard of hearing population remains one of the most underrepresented groups in the biomedical fields.

NTID is teaming up with the University of Rochester to create a "diversity hub of innovation" that would provide training and other resources for deaf scientists. They've already established a couple of training programs under the partnership, one for postdoctoral and another for masters degree students who want to pursue a doctoral degree, but NTID president Gerard Buckley, Ed.D., said those are just a couple of spokes in the wheel.

Buckley envisions an innovation hub where expert sign language interpreters learn the specialized terms used in medicine and science. There would also be opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing scientists to network. Buckley says social isolation from colleagues is a real problem.

"Your peers are sitting around all the time talking about what their experiences are, what they've learned, giving each other advice, and many times that information happens in social settings where access services aren't available,” he said. “It might be during a coffee break, or when you all go out to grab a beer or whatever."

Buckley said Rochester would be the ideal place for a diversity hub of innovation with its large deaf population and expertise in the health care industry.

Stephen Dewhurst Ph.D., vice dean for Research at the University of  Rochester Medical Center, said best practices from programs developed here to address the needs of deaf and hard of hearing scientists could be passed on to other institutions.

Dewhurst says it's clear that diversity is a benefit to research.

"It leads to different ways of thinking problems, different ways of solving problems, and frankly, it also changes which problems we focus on; we see that with other underrepresented groups."

Buckley said Congresswoman Louise Slaughter has been instrumental in making introductions to officials at the National Institutes of Health who are interested in removing barriers for underrepresented groups in biomedical careers. Buckley and Dewhurst hope to apply for NIH grants to further develop the innovation hub concept.

Other fields have successfully addressed a similar lack of diversity, especially since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

When Buckley was in college in the 1970s, there was only one deaf attorney in the U.S. Now, there are more than 400.

"I would love to see the same thing happen in the biomedical and health sciences career area," he said. "I would love to have stories about someone being accepted into medical school, or completing a nursing degree, or doing cutting edge research in cancer - someone who's deaf - and that would just become the norm."

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.