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Tech Talk: "Innovations Improving Deaf Communication"
16 May 2016
Innovations Improving Deaf Communication
At a student journalism convention that I attended at Columbia University in March 2016, there was one theme that nearly every session addressed: my generation consumes a lot more information due to the Age of Technology. I was born at the end of the internet boom, too young to remember the pre-Y2K momentum and its eerie doomsday speculations. I saw the phase-out of tape cassettes and VCRs that turned to CDs, iPods, iPhones, DVDs, and Blu-Rays. This movement continues today as the internet gains new users from all around the world. As the online population has grown and developed, so has our connectivity with one another. Countless platforms of social media and online fads have changed the scope of our interactions with one another—the Deaf Community included. Technology has revolutionized how we communicate.
Beyond learning the sign for bathroom in elementary school and seeing a few Deaf people signing at the outlet mall, my first encounter with sign was at my first job at a local supermarket. Lynn, a colleague who is heard of hearing, relied on mostly on lipreading, hoping that a customer spoke loud enough, or someone articulated words they said when serving customers. In her situation, there was no other device to limit miscommunication. Interpreting lips is a completely different skillset commonly used to “fill in the blanks” and make sense of what a Hearing person is trying to communicate. As an essay by Deaf Stanford alumna Rachel Kolb describes, “There was no reason to sign with anyone besides close friends and family, no reason to expect anyone to communicate on my terms. Surrounded by hearing people all the time, my only option has been to adapt” (Kolb, 2013). Fortunately, in the last decade, technology has been able to bridge the gap between the Deaf and Hearing.
One of the most popular ways to narrow this gap is as accessible as reaching into your jeans pocket. Since the invention of text messaging, its usefulness and integration into the Deaf community are clear. It’s a portable, two-way communication method that gets simpler by the year and an easy alternative for when sign language or interpreters are not a viable option. Though it might be slower, an interview in one CBS News article points out, “‘I don't have to depend on hearing people,” the athletic director at a Deaf school in Alabama states, “It makes me a lot more independent’” (Associated, 2010). Instead of typed acronyms, LOLs, handwritten English on scratch paper, though, what about actually using American Sign Language in technology? That’s where Deaf developers come in. In the summer of 2015, one of several ASL app initiatives went viral, called Signily.
Today, there are several handshape Emoji emoticons that translate on smartphone platforms through text. These translations are possible through Unicode, a universal special character language in computer science (Unicode, 2015). Operating systems, like Apple iPhones and iPad or Android device, can understand and translate the special characters to consistently generate the same message from one device to another. Getting new characters approved, created and distributed doesn’t happen easily. The American Sign Language nonprofit ASLized backed the Signly app so Deaf people would not have to wait. They created their own keyboard with the ASL alphabet and some 100 basic signs when it launched. It is now possible to put together strings of letters mixed with these signs to send through text on their smartphones in the place of Emojis. Text messages lack the facial expressions and sub-communications that hand signs carry. When trying to only use texts to communicate, the ASLized introductory video for the app calls this lack of additional indicators, “not 100% equivalent to American Sign Language" (Kircher, 2015). Using the ASL keyboard and bringing sign language to an already popular technology as a default is effectively changing the realm of a conversation between the Deaf and hard of hearing.
Signing has increasingly found its place in the workplace as time has gone on. Thanks to equal opportunity employers—encouraged through legislation including but not limited to the American with Disabilities Act—a mix of hearing, Deaf, and even the autistic non-verbal might make up a typical work team in the coming years. That’s where two undergraduate students at Washington University come in. A new prototype for gloves that translate sign language into speech (in real time) are the works by forward thinkers Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor. The gloves are called SignAloud that work by, “[recognizing] hand gestures that correspond to words and phrases in American Sign Language. Each glove contains sensors that record hand position and movement and send data wirelessly via Bluetooth to a central computer. The computer looks at the gesture data…then the associated word or phrase is spoken through a speaker” (Langston, 2015). This award-winning concept demonstrates yet another example of technology meeting the standard of those who already feel comfortable with using sign language rather than them needing to adapt to new technology.
New devices and communication outlets are not meant to suppress or discourage the Deaf from being heard. In fact, being able to take instant videos and video chat. Apple FaceTime, Skype, YouTube, and Snapchat have enabled the expression of original ideas. Conveniences like SignAloud are meant to be, “ergonomic enough to use as an everyday accessory, similar to hearing aids or contact lenses,” according to Thomas Pryor (Langston, 2015). This duo is one of many broadening the scope of good technology to technology that does good for humanity. As a general attitude, the Deaf Community is one of many that is developing a voice in tandem with technology. We all must benefit from enhanced communication between other individuals despite barriers before we move on to the next advancements as a unit.
Technology has played an important role in the recent years in making it easier than ever to communicate with those you don’t know any sign language. Moving from convoluted TTY to simple texting, though, are not to be considered to be coping methods as if no one can interpret their ideas. No—technology has been a way to empower us and has given many a voice, much like it has given Hearing persons a space to have a voice too. As someone who talks with their hands moving all over the place and has a stutter, I sometimes catch myself using the sign for watch when I say “look” or “see” due to my beginner vocabulary learned over the course of this academic year. Though I lack any Deaf people to have a conversation with in ASL right now, I am able to use sign language now as a way to keep a focus on the messages and words I am trying to convey over my hands following abstract patterns. As I continue signing in my life, I will anxiously be waiting for the next inventions and innovations coming down the pike. In the ever-evolving environment of technology, the Deaf are changing the game of modern connectivity.
Aiken, Karri of ASLized! (2015, July 26). Signly: American Sign Language Keyboard App. YouTube Retrieved 14, May 2016: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOMTkit0iXk >
Kircher, Madison Malone (2015, August 6). There’s finally a good way to text in sign language. Tech Insider Retrieved 10, May 2016: <http://www.techinsider.io/text-in-american-sign-language-with-keyboard-app-signily-2015-8>
Kolb, Rachel. (2013, April). Seeing at the Speed of Sound. Stanford Alumni Magazine. Retrieved 13, May 2016: < http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=59977 >
Langston, Jennifer. (2015, April 12). UW undergraduate team wins $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for gloves that translate sign language. UW Today. Retrieved 06, May 2016: < http://www.washington.edu/news/2016/04/12/uw-undergraduate-team-wins-10000-lemelson-mit-student-prize-for-gloves-that-translate-sign-language >
The Associated Press (2010, September 10). For Deaf, Texting Offers New Portal to World. CBSNews. Retrieved 30, April 2016: < http://www.cbsnews.com/news/for-deaf-texting-offers-new-portal-to-world >Unicode, Inc. (2015, December 1). What Is Unicode? Unicode.org Retrieved 13, May 2016: < http://unicode.org/standard/WhatIsUnicode.html >
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