Can Assistive Technology Really Help the Deaf to Communicate Independently?

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By Anirban Lahiri, Guest Blogger

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The field of Assistive Technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be well reflected with the existing solutions for the deaf with regards to communication.

According to the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), across all age groups, approximately 600,000 people in the United States (0.22% of the population, or 2.2 per 1,000) alone are “deaf” (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2011).

The primary medium of communication within the deaf community is Sign Language. It is estimated that more than 500,000 people use American Sign Language. Sign language is most effective for independent communication amongst deaf people knowledgeable of sign language as they have to rely on a human interpreter to communicate with non-deaf people. Although certified sign language interpreters are bound by a strict code of ethics, they can be hard to find and also there can still be issues relating to conveying confidential communication due to the involvement of a third party (i.e. the interpreter).

Technology has played its role to enable people who are deaf to take part in non face-to-face communication. The earliest of such inventions, TTY (Text Telephony) which is still very much in use today, allows users who are deaf to communicate via text messages over a regular phone line. TTY requires specialized equipment that usually consists of a typewriter-like keyboard, a telephone coupler, and some form of visual display (Dungan, 2003). The issue with such a system is that the possession of TTY equipment isn’t as widespread within the general masses which make it complicated for communication to occur between deaf and the non-deaf individuals. This led to the establishment of Telecommunication Relay Service (TRS) stations in various countries keen to harbor an accessible society for all. TRS stations employ specially trained Communication Assistants (CAs) that serve as intermediaries between hearing people using regular telephones and deaf persons using text telephones (TTY).

The advent of new generation Information & Communication Technology (ICT) and ICT based services has had its share of positive implications on the deaf society. The proliferation of mobile phone use itself has greatly improved text based communication among deaf people and the rest of the world using SMS. The influx of 3G mobile phone networks worldwide has enabled deaf persons to communicate with each other using sign language over video calls. The introduction of various communication tools supporting video chat over the internet (e.g. Skype, ooVoo) has immensely contributed towards expanding avenues for this form of communication. There have also been some innovative solutions towards facilitating communication between deaf and hearing people, like the iCommunicator, which is a comprehensive solution allowing conversion of Speech-to-Text, Speech/Text-to-Video based Sign Language, and Text-to-Speech in real time. I personally am yet to try out this solution but from the look of it there are natural dependencies to the solution such as needing to create/train/maintain profiles of all non-deaf users to retain accuracy of Speech-to-Text, and more importantly it is not a practical portable solution to be used on the walk. Nevertheless, in theory it might work very well in a static environment like a classroom. At the forefront of all this is some ground-breaking innovative research projects and prospective products like Sign2 and EnableTalk working to convert Sign language-to-Text/Speech in real time.

The important aspect to become aware of is the unavoidable reliance of “Digital Infrastructural Development” of a country in order for all the proven existing solutions to work effectively. Whether it is establishment of TRS stations or implementation of a broadband 3G network there has to be an earnest nationwide commitment towards ICT development and implementation of an accessible environment. The emphasis on developing ICT infrastructure and standards to uplift social opportunities and equality for the deaf community is also continually expressed by advocacy bodies such as World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). Another underlying factor is the literacy levels of members within the deaf community as many of the solutions depend on the deaf individual communicating via reading/writing/typing.

So, in conclusion there are very limited opportunities for two-way communication to occur between deaf and hearing people based solely on assistive technology itself without having to worry about conditional barriers such as availability of TRS and 3G mobile networks. The shortcomings of the existing technologies are even more prevalent in regions like Asia and the Middle East where the percentage of literate deaf individuals are fewer compared to North America & Europe, along with limited work being done in the area of sign language translation. Both ICT and AT has played a revolutionary role in improving the quality of lives of people with disabilities but still its full impact is yet to be realized by the deaf. Why is this the situation while other segments of the disabled population gained far more from assistive technologies in terms of being able to communicate independently? As it is better late than never, perhaps it is time that we need to really start focusing on the development of proper assistive technology that would enable the deaf to better communicate independently with hearing people.


Anirban Lahiri, Senior AT Specialist, Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center)

Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center) is a non-profit organization committed to connecting people with disabilities to the world of ICT. Established formally in June 2010 Mada strives to empower and enable people with disabilities through the greater use of Information and Communication Technologies. Mada provides Assistive Technology solutions including assessment and training for people with all types of disabilities, parents and professionals throughout Qatar. Being the only center of its kind in the Middle East, Mada is also actively involved in the field of eAccessibility and Assistive Technology Research & Development.

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