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Scottish Finger-Signing Gets Its Own Documentary

We often read about the struggle to document and preserve endangered spoken and written languages.  But what about disappearing sign languages? Deaf people all over the world have their own regional languages and methods of communicating, some of which are also vanishing.

For example, a new documentary by the Highland Council’s Deaf Communication Project aims to capture Scottish Highland finger-spelling before it is completely replaced by standard sign language. As project manager Jenny Liddell explained to the BBC:

“Older deaf people don’t use as many signs, but instead use their fingers to spell out individual letters. It sounds like a slow way to communicate, but in fact it’s amazingly fast and beautiful to watch, and its part of our heritage.”

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Sign Language Interpreter Fiasco at Mandela’s Memorial Service

For a man like Nelson Mandela, who fought so hard to create a more inclusive society, it was neither a proper nor a fitting sendoff. A sign language interpreter was provided to interpret Mandela’s memorial service for deaf audience members and viewers, but it seems nobody bothered to check his qualifications before they put him on stage.

The interpreter, a man by the name of Thamsanqa Jantjie, spent hours on stage “interpreting” the speeches of leaders and dignitaries from around the globe. Unfortunately, he “interpreted” their words into the sign language equivalent of gibberish. As Action on Hearing Loss CEO Paul Breckell told NBCNews: Read more

Deaf Jail

Can you imagine being held prisoner by people you cannot communicate with, with no idea why you are there or when you will be released? That’s what happened to Timothy Siaki, an American man imprisoned in a Colorado jail for 25 days without an interpreter. That’s almost a month!

How did this Kafkaesque situation come to be? Mr. Siaki was staying in a motel with his fiancée, Kimberlee Moore. Ms. Moore is also deaf, and the couple communicates exclusively in American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is Mr. Siaki’s only mode of communication; he can neither read nor write English.

The couple got into a spat that was apparently not that serious but was quite loud. When hearing people fight, they are able to hear themselves, so they know exactly how loud they are being and can tone it down as necessary. Deaf people, on the other hand, can’t hear their own voices. So, it’s easy for them to end up screaming bloody murder without even being aware of it. Read more

Cornell Develops Sign-Language Mobile Phones

These days, almost everyone has a mobile phone. But what about people who are deaf or hearing-impaired?

Until now, deaf people have been able to able to use cell phones in a limited fashion, for texting only. Texting is a valuable communication option, and providers like T-Mobile have long offered “data-only” plans aimed at the hearing-impaired for phones like the Sidekick that have keyboards specially designed for typing and texting.

However, researchers at Cornell University have developed a new type of cell phone that enables deaf users to go beyond texting and actually hold live conversations with other people.

The phones use videoconferencing to allow deaf people to converse in sign language. Your phone may be able to take and send a video message, but unless you’re one of the 25 Seattle residents currently using the phone, you can’t do live videoconferencing like this. The phones have been optimized to transmit clear, easy-to-see video using limited bandwidth.

The software on the phones has also been written to maximize battery life, which can be sucked dry rather quickly by data usage.

In an article on Physorg.com, Sheila Hemami, Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering who supervises the project in cooperation with Eve Riskin and Richard Ladner of the University of Washington, explained that the devices  are important because “We completely take cell phones for granted. Deaf people can text, but if texting were so fabulous, cell phones would never develop. There is a reason that we like to use our cell phones. People prefer to talk.”

Parents of teenagers may disagree with that last statement. However, if this device makes into large-scale production, it will offer deaf people something they have never had before when it comes to using a cell phone-the ability to choose the way they communicate with others.

Sign Language in Cambodia

True sign languages arise when communities of deaf people have the opportunity to interact and communicate with each other — there are around 200 sign languages in use around the world today.  However, in some countries, there is no deaf community, just deaf individuals isolated from each other and from the world around them.

In 1997, when Catholic priest Charles Dittmeier arrived on the scene, Cambodia was one of those countries. There were no services available for deaf people, who were generally stigmatized and treated as outcasts.  Since 1997, Dittmeier has been working with the Maryknoll Deaf Development program to coordinate the development of a Cambodian deaf sign language.

Now, the charity operates a school for deaf teenagers and adults in Phnom Penh, offering food, clothing, shelter and job training programs to people who have grown up without a language, often without even a name to call themselves.  Ouen Darong, 27,  described his life before he came to the Deaf Development Program center:

“I didn’t have any contact outside of my family. It was like being in prison. I was stuck there. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any education.”   Read more

Lady Gaga Wants To Learn Sign Language

Lady Gaga has been branded as the new “Queen of Pop Music” and a music phenomenon of her generation with a string of hits: “just dance” , “bad romance”, “poker face “and more recently “Judas”. Since 2005 she has sold more than 6 million albums worldwide.

However, underneath the surface gloss, glamour and eccentricity, there beats the heart of a true philanthropist who has contributed to various charities and humanitarian works as well as campaigning for gay rights in America and the fight against HIV. The last year, Lady Gaga held a benefit concert to aid in the reconstruction of Haiti after the devastating earthquake claimed an estimated quarter of a million lives.

More recently, Lady Gaga has expressed a desire to learn sign language so she can communicate with her deaf fans. A source told The Sun newspaper :

“Now she wants to make sure her deaf fans feel included too. Once she’s mastered sign language she’ll be able to respond to the videos that are online, and include signing in future live tours.”

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One Ring To Translate

People who are deaf or hard of hearing and use sign language to communicate may soon get some extra help when it comes to translation, thanks to a sign language translation ring under development by a group of designers from Asia University.

The device consists of a set of rings and two bracelets that sense and interpret finger, hand and wrist movements made by the user. The signs are translated into words, which are relayed to the user’s conversation partner via a speaker. The device also translates spoken words into writing, which is shown on an LED display on the bracelet.

The sign language ring won the 2013 Red Dot Design award. If it makes it through the development phase and out to the general public, it could provide a streamlined, convenient way to help the deaf and hard-of-hearing interact with the hearing world.

However, as with many high-tech translation concepts, the devil is in the details. Questions remain about how accurately the device will be able to translate sign language. As it stands now, it’s certainly not a replacement for a human interpreter. As Howard Rosenblum, the CEO of US organization the National Association for the Deaf, explained to ABC News:

“American Sign Language encompasses more than what would be measured in the wrist and fingers. ASL relies on wrist movements, handshapes, finger-spelling, body movements and facial expressions. The National Association of the Deaf encourages the developers of this emerging technology to work with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, and the hearing community, to ensure that their innovative product meets our needs.”

Despite these drawbacks, if the Sign Language Ring makes it into production, it could be a welcome tool for everyday situations like shopping. What do you think of it?

Photo credit: © | Dreamstime.com

Sign Language Translation Gloves Win Imagine Cup

A team of Ukrainian students won first prize at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup for their prototype of a device to translate sign language into speech. The EnableTalk gloves are similar in concept to this Fingual sign language translation glove, but with a few significant improvements: they translate sign language directly to speech instead of translating to text, and they are much cheaper.

In fact, the cost for the parts needed to assemble the device is only $50, as opposed to $1,200 for similar prototypes. Here’s how it works: the gloves contain built-in flex sensors, touch sensors, gyroscopes and accelerometers to help them make sense of the user’s hand gestures. The software translates the gestures into text, and a text-to-speech engine translates them into speech. The speech can be streamed to a smart phone via Bluetooth and the speakers on the phone broadcast the translation.

The device is definitely clever, and it’s great to see the price of technology like this come down to something that the average Joe or Jane can afford. Even better, TechCrunch notes that it can be “trained” by the user to recognize custom signs.

There are a couple of drawbacks, however. First, as many commenters on TechCrunch and other sites have already noted, it’s unclear how the gloves will pick up on important elements of sign language like hand placement and facial expressions.

Second, at the moment, the device only works on older Windows Mobile smartphones, as developers aren’t allowed access to the Bluetooth stack on the more up-to-date Windows 7 phones. Hopefully, though, that issue will be fixed (and the gloves will be available for people who use other mobile devices) if and when the product is brought to market.

For the moment, the team is justifiably savoring their win. The Silicon Republic quotes team member Maxim Osika at the Inspire Cup:

“We were inspired to help our friends who are hearing- and speech-impaired to have the ability to communicate like everyone else. The Imagine Cup is an amazing experience; we’re thrilled to be here learning from the experts around us.”

Deaf Puppy Joins Deaf Family, Learns Sign Language

With her floppy ears, black spots and one blue eye, you’d think Alice the springer spaniel would have no problem finding a home.   However, the adorable pup was actually neglected and cast off by a breeder after it was discovered that she was born deaf.

The Blue Cross took her in, but was afraid that it would be hard to find her a “forever home” because of her special needs.

Fortunately, Marie Williams and her partner Mark Morgan saw Alice’s profile on the Blue Cross website. Williams and Morgan are both deaf, and they decided that Alice was meant to join their family. Read more

Sign Language Translation at Lollapalooza

By their very nature, live concerts might seem to exclude the deaf and hard of hearing. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, as this year’s Lollapalooza concert in Chicago proved.

The concert featured Barbie Parker, a sign language interpreter from Austin, Texas. Merely signing the lyrics of the songs helps include the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the show, but doesn’t convey the whole experience. So, Ms. Parker takes sign language interpreting to the next level. Recognizing that music is more intense than spoken words, she makes her interpreting into an intense performance of her own. Read more