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Technology and Deaf Communication:

By Collin Matthew Belt
3 May 2014


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 necessities.

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 popularity.

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.

Works Cited:

"Software translates sign language into text." ASHA Leader Sept. 2013. 10. Communications and Mass Media Collection. Web. 02 May 2014.

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." Conde Nast Digital, 26 Nov. 2011. Web. 02 May 2014.

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 2014.

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.

Also see:
Technology and the Deaf (01)

Technology and the Deaf (02)
Technology and the Deaf: Impacts on Culture

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