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RTI Stories

Autocuers, Cochlear Implants, and "Nemesis"

RTI's outsize impact on hearing research in the 1970s

In the 1970s, many children stricken with deafness before the age of three never fully learned their native language and often experienced developmental issues–but research at RTI would help change that paradigm. In the mid-1960s, at Gallaudet College for the Deaf, Orin Cornett had developed a technique called cued speech, in which simple hand signals combined with lip-reading made spoken English comprehensible to a deaf child. RTI engineer Robert Beadles and his hearing-impaired daughter, Elena, eagerly learned the cued-speech system. Then, in 1971, Beadles collaborated with Cornett to turn these manual cues into automatic ones. The result was the Autocuer, a wearable instrument that processes speech and provides visual cues to supplement lip-reading.

Another important RTI field of research that vastly improved communication among the deaf and hearing impaired was cochlear implants, small devices surgically implanted inside the inner ear. Unlike hearing aids, cochlear implants do not amplify sound; instead, they use implanted electrodes to directly stimulate functioning auditory nerves carrying speech to the brain.

RTI began its research on cochlear implant technology in 1978. Six years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an Australian cochlear implant device facilitating near-normal levels of speech recognition. RTI researcher Blake Wilson, now at Duke University, invented most of the speech-processing strategies used in the original and subsequent generations of the device; in fact, a Wilson paper, published in 1991 in the journal Nature, is among the most highly cited references in the field.

Elsewhere, RTI's involvement with the health care industry continued apace. A five-year project sponsored by the National Center for Health Services Research had RTI researchers analyzing medical services across the country–what these services were, how much they cost, who used them, and how much users paid before insurance absorbed the remainder.

RTI launched in 1976 the National Medical Care Expenditures Survey (NMCES). More than 13,500 families were interviewed six times over a 15-month period; 60 percent of the 22,000 physicians who provided services were also surveyed, as were the thousands of hospitals and clinics providing care and the employers and insurance companies that paid for it. On any given day, 125 or more RTI staff members could be working on this $22 million project, the results of which were passed on to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare for policy-making decisions.