Intern Helps Improve Telecommunication Services for the Deaf

By Kay M. Upham

Alvin Beery

Telecommunications services have become a lifeline for many, especially during a time of social distancing.

But communicating using technology can be particularly challenging for people with disabilities. That's why MITRE has partnered with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to research and develop improved telecommunications services and options for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHOH) community.

Summer intern Alvin Beery was a key part of our support to the FCC. As a deaf student at Gallaudet University majoring in information technology, his input as a user and tester helped advance the quality and usability of the services.

"It's so important to keep improving communication services and then test and retest them after updates and new service additions are made," he says. "If there are problems with implementation, you run the risk of a well-intended system enhancement becoming a communication barrier."

The technical contributions of Beery and others with first-hand knowledge of the challenges to the DHOH have paid off. MITRE’s interoperability research and testing of the FCC's Video Relay Services (VRS) resulted in a shift from only 20 percent of video calls connected to 90 percent of video calls completed successfully. The work was heavily supported by our DHOH summer interns from both Gallaudet University and Rochester Institute of Technology – National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

That means deaf individuals can now reliably use an American Sign Language interpreter to communicate via video with family, friends, medical personnel, businesses, and others.

Making the Connection

When VRS first launched, many in the DHOH community, including Beery, experienced mixed and inconsistent results when using it. "I had problems using video initially but noticed definite improvements in the service over time," he says. "Then when I came here, I realized MITRE was helping the FCC identify and make many improvements." Some of the modifications were the direct result of previous Gallaudet University interns' ideas and testing of earlier prototypes.

He also learned how MITRE's rigorous testing and troubleshooting to address technical issues significantly enhanced the quality of the calls.

During his internship, Beery performed video relay system testing to confirm that five commercial VRS provider devices and platforms met quality and connectivity expectations. This involved running daily tests, logging results, and compiling periodic reports.

"I learned a lot from my mentors and about the field of network engineering," Beery says. "This has been very helpful, as I'm studying for the CCNA [Cisco Certified Network Associate] exam."

Beery also performed release testing of the FCC’s Video Access Technical Reference Platform, an open-source VRS compliance test tool. After the summer, he continued to work remotely on a part-time schedule during the school year.

"Alvin consistently made valuable contributions to the team and the project," says MITRE's Joe Gruessing. "His work helped ensure a solid deliverable to our FCC sponsor and to the community. And he helped further educate the team on deaf culture, and on how to use other tools and technology for day-to-day collaboration."

MITRE's FCC project lead Reeta Singh agrees. "Alvin and our DHOH interns have enabled us to learn more about the DHOH community, specifically their communication challenges and culture. We've appreciated the opportunity to form such strong relationships with these future leaders."

Beery recently graduated from Gallaudet University with a degree in information technology and a concentration in network engineering. He'll be rejoining MITRE as an early-career professional in July.