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A clearer voice for the deaf

Samuel Fletcher listens to the whisperings of the Spirit, and because he does the world may soon be listening to clearer voices from the hearing impaired.

Dr. Fletcher is chairman of the department of biocommunications at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and the developer of computers that help the deaf to speak more clearly, and also do it faster and easier.Pres. Fletcher is the devoted president of the Bessemer Alabama Stake in suburban Birmingham, a man who has been known to spend vacation time tracting with missionaries.

In both roles, he has relied heavily on the guidance of the Spirit. "I've always had a desire to be close to my Heavenly Father," he said.

Pres. Fletcher is convinced that inspiration led him to his rewarding career, to his present spouse after the tragic death of his first wife, and to UAB, which has offered substantial support for his research project over the past 18 years.

Inspiration in his complex world of medical research? "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't seek guidance from the Lord in my work," he said. "And I really feel that he has helped us clear many difficult hurdles we've faced over the years."

Pres. Fletcher's educational background is in speech pathology, the science of normal and disordered speech, and in audiology, the science of hearing. It was while working with a group of hearing-impaired students in Portland, Ore., nearly 30 years ago that he began searching for better ways to teach them how to speak, and speak more clearly. "The students had a lot more untapped potential. We just didn't have a way of fully reaching them."

Hearing-impaired people, Pres. Fletcher explained, learn to talk by watching others' speak. But there's a basic problem with that. "Less than one-third of speech sounds can be seen on the face," he said. "That's why traditional methods of teaching the deaf to speak are so slow and laborious, especially for those who are profoundly hearing impaired. It boils down to a lot of guessing on the student's part."

In the years that followed his experience in Oregon, Pres. Fletcher gradually decided to hitch his ideas about teaching to the rapidly expanding world of electronics. And for the past 20 years, his objective has been to perfect a machine that would more effectively teach the deaf to speak.

Preliminary studies show that the sophisticated computer he has painstakingly developed over those two decades has done just that - in a most dramatic way.

Here's how it works: A mouthpiece, which looks much like a dental retainer, is fitted inside the mouth. It has dozens of electronic diodes that measure where the tongue lies in the mouth as words are pronounced. This information is translated into a visual computer image. That image can be compared to another one that shows how a word should ideally be pronounced. The deaf can see a graphic representation of the inside of their mouths as they speak, and make adjustments until they match the target.

The process is so new that the scientific world has had to come up with a new name for it - dynamic orometry. And the word is spreading.

Pres. Fletcher's project is gaining widespread attention from medical journals and other magazines and newspapers. His work was also featured on the Public Broadcasting System program, "Discover: The World of Science." The 15-minute segment has aired on PBS staations across the United States during February.

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded Pres. Fletcher a major three-year grant, telling him that his work "looks like the breakthrough." Pres. Fletcher hopes, with the help of a 10-person staff, to wrap up his decades of research in the coming three years and have the machines perfected and ready for worldwide use.

"Then," he said, "my wife, Barbara, and I plan on going on a mission."

Pres. Fletcher, a native of Preston, Idaho, began his career, and research, at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. It was there his first wife, Josephine, died in an auto accident, leaving him to raise five children, ages 3 to 16 - alone.

"I called them together and told them that they needed a mother and I needed a mate," Pres. Fletcher recalled. "It was just a few months later that I met Barbara (Johns). It took place in a way that made it evident that we were meant to be brought together." They were married shortly thereafter and celebrated their 20th anniversary last August.

A few years later, Pres. Fletcher felt a need to move his expanding research to another university. "I wanted to serve the Lord more deeply, too, so I placed myself in His hands and told Him I'd go where He wanted me to."

That ended up being Birmingham, Ala., after a brief stop in New Mexico. When Pres. Fletcher arrived in 1970, the Church in Alabama was still small and fledgling, with just one branch each in Birmingham and Bessemer. But it had gained a valiant future leader.

Pres. Fletcher has been involved in a host of leadership positions ever since then. He has served as president of the Bessemer Alabama Stake for the past four years.

"I consider my opportunities to serve as blessings," said Pres. Fletcher. "I love the people I serve, and I love it here. I'm so glad the Lord guided me to Alabama."

He is a dedicated stake president. A few years ago he was concerned about the level of missionary work in his stake, so he called around the South to see where the work was going strong. He decided the place was North Carolina, and he spent two weeks of his next vacation studying the mission and working with the missionaries, even tracting with them.

He has a unique view of his role in the medical research he's conducting. "I feel very strongly that the Lord has things He would like to make available to mankind," he said. "It is a day when handicaps are being lifted. His children need an opportunity to speak, and the time appears to be right. I can't take a lot of personal credit."

Only that he has been listening - to the Spirit.

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