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Deaf woman's thesis could help millions of disabled people

Published Online December 6, 2003

URBANA - Just like many other graduate students, Frances Yi-Yun Qian has been swamped with work as she puts the final touches on defending her thesis.
    When choosing a topic more than a year ago, she worked with Professor Roy Campbell and selected an issue that could help more than 49 million people in the world.
    She presented a limited version of her thesis at the Digital Computer Laboratory on campus Friday to a small group of University of Illinois staff and students, using interactive computer technology, which helps deaf, mute or other disabled people make academic presentations.
    "I would suggest disabled people try it. I believe their feedback will help us a lot," said Qian, 27, who is deaf and has limited speaking ability. "I expect we will not have to wait too long ... when the system will be set up in everyone's room."
    Named for a Greek goddess, the Gaia Speech Engine Application allows a person to program a male or female voice that sounds close to natural speech. The screen image moves its lips as it mouths the words for the presentation, written into the system.
    Gaia still has some bugs to work out. Sometimes it is difficult to convert jargon or slang into the system, and it doesn't have emotional inflection. But it is technology that could greatly improve the lives of many disabled people.
    Qian was able to answer questions about the project and her personal life with the system she used for her thesis. Questions were written on a 51-inch plasma screen bolted to the wall; she would type her responses on computer with a female voice speaking out her written responses.
    "I am happy to see Gaia can speak for me," Qian said. "It enables me to express myself. I don't have to depend on others when I want to speak."
    Qian was diagnosed as deaf in her home-country, China. And even though life hasn't been easy, she kept a positive outlook on life. It helped that her only sister Sophia has the same condition. She is studying at a university for deaf students in Washington, D.C.
    "As deaf persons, we are really close to each other," said Qian, whose younger sister taught her sign language.
    She came to the United States in 1996 after high school and chose the UI after friends and family recommended the school. Since her arrival, she received a bachelor's of science degree in computer science and mathematics, worked an internship with Lucent Technologies and for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
    "She is very dedicated to making her own path in the world," said Campbell, who first met her as a student more than a year ago. "It's not very easy to get a computer science degree here. That, plus struggling with a disability, makes it amazing what she has done."
    He said her thesis topic was far from easy and she had to write some computer software before working on the project.
    "When I was a little girl," Qian said, "my mom always told me that as a deaf person, I needed to work hard in order to do the same things as other people."
    Bryan McMurray, supervisor of sensory and testing accommodations for the UI Division of Rehabilitation Educational Services, first met Qian in 1998, while she worked on her undergraduate degree. He soon found her a cut above the average student.
    "Frances is a delight. She is quite a remarkable student," said McMurray, who is blind. "To be in this field, it is pretty competitive. She does everything twice as hard as most people."
    But he said her human side shines through just as much as her academic accomplishments.
    McMurray has invited Qian over his home several times to interact with his wife and kids. They have become good friends in the past five years, with Qian sending him Thanksgiving and Christmas cards, along with buying him a Chicago Cubs hat for his 50th birthday.
    In her spare time - which she said has evaporated in the past months working on the thesis - Qian likes to cook and watch basketball. She was a Chicago Bulls fans, but like many who can relate, she chose to jump off that bandwagon and root for a winning team. She now cheers for the Los Angeles Lakers.
    She plans to graduate in December, but joked that it is out of her control.
    "Hopefully, Professor Campbell will approve my thesis so I can graduate," Qian said.

You can reach Ernst Lamothe Jr. at (217) 351-5223 or via e-mail at .



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