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Ofir Degani on His Hearing Disability and Passion for Accessible Technology

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Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) encourages us to think about how to create accessible, inclusive digital infrastructure for the over one billion people with disabilities and impairments. As part of the 11th anniversary of GAAD, Ofir Degani, an Intel Fellow in the CCG Wireless Group, shares his experience building a career at Intel, living with a hearing disability, and working to make technology more accessible.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, and how you became interested in technology?
I grew up in Ashkelon, a small town in southern Israel. My parents got me into tech early—they bought my first computer, a Commodore 64, in the second grade and signed me up for an afterschool class to learn basic programming.  

I was a top student at my high school, so when it launched its new electronics and robotics program, I was recruited to join. I went on to do my degree in electrical engineering and physics at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, and later completed my MSc and PhD in electrical engineering under the supervision of Prof. Yael Nemirovsky in the field of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

How did you arrive at Intel?
Once I completed my military service as an electrical engineer, I joined Intel’s Wireless Communication Solution (WCS) group as a Radio Frequency Integrated Circuit Design (RFIC) research engineer. Having spent the previous 10 years in MEMS, moving to a completely new field was a big transition. But after an empowering conversation with Shmuel Ravid, later my manager and career mentor at Intel, I decided to make the switch.

I had to learn everything on the fly. In some ways, it was an advantage: I could bring a different perspective, and I felt bold enough to take on challenges that others thought were impossible. With the support and collaboration of other RFIC and WCS teams, I was able to drive several breakthrough wireless technologies, from concept to product. And, inspired by Shmuel’s commitment to mentorship, I also co-constructed introductory university courses on RF-CMOS design and Digital RFIC design.

Could you tell me about your hearing disability?
My hearing disability is inherited—several of my family members suffer from the same disability. The hearing loss gets worse with time, so it only became pronounced for me during my undergraduate studies. That’s when I started needing hearing aids.

Back then, hearing aids were much bulkier than they are today, and earbuds hadn’t gone mainstream yet. As a young person, it was difficult to admit that I couldn’t hear well without them, and I was also shy about going out with such big things in my ears. But as my hearing got worse, it became very hard to communicate without them, especially in big groups and meetings. By the time I got to Intel, I was wearing them on a daily basis.

What accessibility challenges have you experienced, inside and outside of Intel?
Disabilities will impact your life as a whole, and mine has led me into some difficult situations and some funny ones (I’ve learned that keeping some level of self-humor can help). Noisy, crowded spaces are especially challenging. But even in quiet places, it sometimes takes a person’s confused look to make me realize that I’ve answered a question completely different from what I was asked.

These challenges have given me a strong personal passion for accessible technology. Most recently, I have been working on redesigning the relationship between people, their hearing aids, and their PCs. During the pandemic, this has become crucial for connecting with work, school, and family. While Bluetooth hearing aids pair well with cellphones, many require adapters to connect to the PC. This means that if I want to use my laptop, I have to stay at my home office desk—even if I want to enjoy a beautiful day in my garden.

Not to mention, all this technology is still quite expensive. Twenty percent of the world population suffers from some level of hearing disability, but many cannot afford such technologies.

While this isn’t my area of expertise, I have received support on this initiative across Intel, from WCS management—and specifically our talented Bluetooth team—to the recently formed Accessibility Technology Program, which includes engineers across CCG and Intel who are similarly passionate about accessible technology. We have all come together to develop solutions.

As you reflect on GAAD, what is top-of-mind for you?
Each disability brings its own difficulties, so I don’t want to stand in other people’s shoes and speak for them. But for me, although my hearing disability poses challenges, I have not let it get in the way of becoming who I want to be. Accessible technology is a valuable support for people living with disabilities—and designing for digital accessibility can push technology as a whole forward.

At the same time, I have realized the importance of sharing my experiences. It helps people better understand me and inspires them to think about how accessibility intersects with their work. And, more importantly, I hope that by talking about my experiences, I can help uplift other people with disabilities. I hope to encourage others to be open, and to never see their disability as a barrier to their aspirations.