Connected: How New Technologies are Transforming Deaf Communication
We live in a world of increasingly rapid technological advancement.
While we may not have Star Trek’s “Universal Translator” or
“Telepresence” figured out yet, we do have “Communicators” (cell
phones!). These advances have changed the way everyone communicates,
but one community in particular—the Deaf community—is benefiting in
amazing ways. New technologies are changing and enhancing everyday
Deaf communication. When a hearing person wants to talk with a Deaf
person, there is a language barrier to overcome. This can be
resolved if the hearing person learns ASL, or, if the Deaf person
knows English, they can exchange written messages. No matter what
method is used, however, the process is time consuming, difficult,
and one person won’t be able to talk in their native language.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we had easy access to a translator, any
time we liked? As it so happens, researchers from Microsoft are
hoping to make that happen. New software in development for
Microsoft’s Kinect motion-capture device will enable a person
to communicate using ASL with a person who speaks English (ASHA
2013). Kinect is a fascinating device that uses multiple
cameras and infrared lights in order to track body movement and
recognize gestures. The translation software uses the power of
Kinect in two ways: first, it can translate body movements from
the ASL signer and turn it into written or spoken English; second,
it can take written or spoken English, translate it, and sign ASL
using an avatar on screen. While the software is still early in
development, it is already capable of translating not only words,
but full sentences. Considering that Kinect works with both
Windows computers and Xbox video game consoles, it’s easy to imagine
the possibilities for connecting everyone—whether we’re working,
chatting, or playing a video game.
Moving beyond the social realm, technologies are being implemented
that can help Deaf people in emergency situations. Currently, many
Deaf people have to wait for an interpreter when they are in a
hospital’s emergency room. In those types of situations, the long
wait to get an interpreter can be frustrating and potentially life
endangering. However, innovating hospitals like Colorado Springs
Memorial have implemented video calling technology that connects
users to an interpreter at the push of a button. These devices are
available to nurses and doctors through their portable work
stations, and they can connect people within minutes (Emery
2013).Now that many places have access to high-speed Internet, these
life-saving innovations are possible.
When high-speed Internet access became commonplace, our
communication options broadened immensely. It was easy to exchange
email messages, or have a video call with someone across town—or
across the globe. For both hearing and Deaf, email and video calls
became a fantastic way to talk with one another. But one technology
has leveraged the power of the internet and transformed the way we
communicate more than any other electronic device: the smartphone.
It is also the smartphone that will continue to shape our
communication moving forward.
Smartphones have a few key advantages that no other communication
technology has ever combined: First, smartphones are portable and
always with you. Second, they are prolific; most adults own
smartphones. In North America, you are more likely to meet someone
who owns a smartphone than someone who doesn’t. Recent studies
estimate that 60% of adults in the United States own smartphones,
while Canadian ownership has reached 56% (Nielson 2013, The Canadian
Press 2013). It’s not just North America, however, as studies also
show that global smartphone usage has reached 30%, and is growing
rapidly every year (Wired 2011). This trend is unlikely to plateau;
less expensive smartphones and better coverage will ensure that most
people on the planet become connected. Smartphones are so good at
helping us communicate that they are transitioning from luxuries to
This has massive implications for how Deaf people communicate—both
with each other and with hearing people. For years, texting with
phones has been immensely popular because it allows quick
communication with any person—Deaf or hearing—who has a mobile
phone. However, now that mobile networks can bring high-speed
Internet to smartphones, it’s as easy tomake a video call as it is
to make a phone call. It is so simple, in fact, that some
smartphones group voice calls and video calls together—if you have
an iPhone, when you find a number in your contacts, you can click a
phone icon for voice, or a camera icon for video. This has made
video calls convenient for hearing people, but it could be
revolutionary for Deaf people. ASL, as a visual language, simply
cannot be conveyed through voice calls. A video call on the other
hand, can show context, gestures, facial expressions, and even the
speed of human motion—all of the brilliant elements of ASL. Rich and
meaningful conversations can now be held just about anywhere.
It is no surprise then, that when asked, Deaf people rated texting
and video calls among the top three of their favorite ways to
communicate with technology (Cromartie, Gaffey, and Seaboldt 2012).
During a 2012 survey, 92% of participants reported that they used
texting, and 40% said that it was their favorite way to
electronically communicate. Significantly fewer participants
reported that they used video calling as frequently as texting, but
as access to smartphones with video calling capabilities increases,
it is likely that video calling will also increase in use and
It is possible that the small phones we carry will soon enable us to
talk to others across linguistic and cultural barriers. As
smartphones become more advanced, they could obtain Kinect-like
technology that enables signers and non-signers to communicate in
their favorite language. In the meantime, texting and video calling
are accessible and reliable enough to connect most of us right now.
Nobody will be left behind as we learn to talk in new ways, because
we will teach each other. A great example of this happened at CQ
University in Melbourne, Australia, where a group of Digital Media
students created a series of videos in ASL to teach elderly Deaf
people how to use Skype and FaceTime, the two most popular video
chatting programs. But even when it’s not for school credit, those
who know how to use new communication tools are motivated to teach
those who don’t for this one simple reason: people like to talk
to each other. In fact, that is the very reason these
technologies are being invented—it’s the same reason we invented
books, radio, and telephones. Being human means always finding new,
creative, and better ways to talk.
"Software translates sign language into text." ASHA Leader Sept.
2013. 10. Communications and Mass Media Collection. Web. 02
The Canadian Press. "Canadian Smartphone Ownership Way Up."
Maclean's. N.p., 29 July 2013. Web. 02 May 2014.
Bonnington, Christina. "Global Smartphone Adoption Approaches 30
Percent." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 26 Nov. 2011. Web. 02 May
The Nielson Company. "U.S. Smartphone Ownership Top 60%." Nielson.
The Nielson Company, 06 June 2013. Web. 02 May 2014.
CQUniNEWS. "Students Help Older Deaf People Access Skype and
FaceTime." CQ University Australia. N.p., 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 02 May
Emery, Erin. "Skype-Like Technology Helps Deaf People." Memorial
Insider. UC Health Insider, 22 May 2013. Web. 02 May 2014.
Cromartie, Josie, Brian Gaffey, and Mariah Seaboldt. “Evaluating
Communication Technologies for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.”
Worcester Polytechnic Institute. 2 March 2012. Print.
Technology and the Deaf
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