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Deaf-communication pioneer to receive honorary degree

May 3, 2012 By David Tenenbaum

On May 18, Rob Engelke, chief executive officer of Ultratec, Inc., will receive an honorary doctorate at a commencement ceremony at the Kohl Center on the UW–Madison campus.

Engelke was cited for creating extraordinary advances that have enabled deaf and hard-of-hearing people worldwide to communicate via telephone.

Photo: Rob Engelke

Rob Engelke, CEO of Ultratec, Inc., is pictured at one of company’s multiple telecommunication and manufacturing facilities at the University Research Park in Madison.

Photo: Jeff Miller

In the 1970s, Engelke was building computers and selling them to campus researchers. At about the same time that Apple’s founders were making computers in the garage, Engelke had already moved on.

Realizing that deaf people could not use the telephone, he decided to make a teletypewriter that could communicate via text. Although some deaf people were using clunky, costly teletypewriters cast off by newspapers, their supply was finite.

In 1977, Engelke founded Ultratec and began building a miniature, microprocessor-based teletypewriter (TTY) that plugged into a regular phone line. The $150 device allowed deaf people to converse with anybody else who had a TTY, including the government agencies and emergency services that began buying from Ultratec.

Ultratec, unlike Apple, did not become a worldwide brand, but it did revolutionize telecommunications for the deaf in about 15 countries.

By listening to his customers in the deaf community, Engelke created two privately held firms that account for about 900 jobs at the University Research Park in Madison and a total of about 2,000 nationwide.

It’s not about the designer, Engelke says.

“People cannot care less about what is inside the box,” he says. “It’s a mantra here: ‘Don’t talk about what you think you can do, listen to what people need. Then figure out how to get that to happen.’” 

Having survived radical changes in the technological landscape — including ubiquitous texting on phones and computers — Ultratec continues to demonstrate that you can do well by doing good.

And it all started with listening.

Engelke was born and raised in Madison. His father was principal of Nakoma Elementary School, and his mother worked as a clinical psychologist after her kids were grown.

“We never had a new car, never had money to spare, but we were not starving,” he says.

As a teenager, Engelke worked at Central Colony, the predecessor of the Central Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled, and “got an initial exposure to the idea that not everybody had the same range of talents and abilities.”

After getting a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from UW–Madison in 1968, Engelke did technology work for the psychology department and began building computers — until he met some deaf people and recognized the difficulty of life without a telephone.

Working in his basement, Engelke figured out how to place a miniature TTY inside the plastic housing of an early electronic calculator. As Ultratec’s small, affordable TTYs began selling, they attracted the attention of Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Center on campus, which, then and now, advocates accessibility for emerging technologies. 

Photo: CapTel product

A captioned telephone manufactured by Ultratec, Inc.

Photo: Jeff Miller

“Today, Ultratec is the premier company internationally in the area of deaf telecommunication,” says Vanderheiden, a longtime friend.  “Not only did Rob reinvent (the TTY), he also invented an entirely new form of communication for individuals who are hard of hearing, called captioned telephony.”

That business has grown into CapTel, a separate company that, like Ultratec, is also based in the research park. When a person with a hearing impairment uses CapTel, a “communications assistant” repeats the other party’s words so they can be interpreted by voice-recognition software. The assistant quickly corrects the automatic text, and a verbatim transcript is then routed to a screen on the user’s phone.

The service is free to users and supported by small fees on telephone bills.

CapTel works like a TTY when a deaf person calls a hearing person, providing the best of both worlds to millions more who have some hearing, but find phone calls challenging. Because these users hear the voice, the emotional content of the conversation is much richer, but they still get to read any undecipherable words. 

CapTel has been a revolution, says Engelke, and it now employs about 700 people in Madison in a five-story building next to Ultratec’s factory.

Engelke says he “was floored” to learn that UW–Madison has recognized his record of humanitarian and engineering success.

“I think it’s a wonderful honor that I share with everybody who helped bring this about; clearly this is due to the efforts of a lot of people,” he says.

One of them is Pamela Young-Holmes.

 “She’s the kind of person who walks into your life and changes it,” Engelke says. “In 1987, she came in to complain: Her TTY wasn’t working, and we needed to be more careful about quality. I talked to her [Engelke is adept in American Sign Language], said that things do fail, but we fix them. I asked right there if she would consider working for us … and she now directs our consumer and regulatory affairs and customer service for CapTel.”

According to Young-Holmes, “Rob is one of those rare, extraordinary men in life who has already left a footprint on earth far greater than his shoe size… Rob has put his heart, soul and brilliant intellectual mind to work for tremendous impact on the lives of so many others.”

Ideas come from all directions, and the problem-solving engineer never seems to be in “pause” mode.  Watching an interviewer speed typing, he asks what technology is in use, and wonders whether it could be incorporated in a possible product for people who, like Helen Keller, are blind and deaf. 

Admittedly, this is a tiny market with essentially no profit potential, but Engelke does a judo takedown on this “can’t do” logic.

“We don’t expect to make money on this, but if we don’t make it, who will?” he asks.

Engelke is married to Susan, who is chief financial officer at Ultratec.

Both of their children have signaled an interest in working with Ultratec. Timothy, a lawyer, wants to get involved in business operations and in the advocacy and regulatory areas that affect the deaf and hard of hearing community. Christopher is experimenting with a communication strategy for “locked-in” people who have neurological problems and must communicate with agonizingly slow movements of facial muscles.

The invention, Engelke says, produces such an obvious acceleration in their speech that the test subjects are demanding, “We’ve got to have this right now.” 

Having read this far, you know where this is going. Christopher “is calling on Ultratec to produce a device,” Engelke says approvingly.

Basically, Engelke isn’t much interested in ideas that don’t have a social purpose.

 “We’ve got more than enough to do,” Engelke says. “If it was all about making money, I suppose there would be temptations for spin-off products, but that’s business for business’s sake, and that is not what we are interested in doing.”