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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.”

Read more

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

Automatic Sign Language

We’ve all seen TV shows and movies make use of subtitles for the hearing impaired. However, for many deaf people, it takes more effort to decode the English words used in the subtitles than it would to understand the material if it were presented in their native tongue: sign language.

In an attempt to address this issue, the NHK Science & Technology Research Laboratories just released some interesting new technology: a system that automatically translates spoken language into  sign language using an animated virtual avatar.

As the researchers who developed the system explained to Akihabara News, “Subtitles are fine for people who understand Japanese, and who lost their hearing at some point. Meanwhile, people who are deaf from birth learn sign language first, naturally they study Japanese after that, but they find that sign language is easier to understand than subtitles, so we are conducting research in sign language.” Read more

GPs Urged to Use More Sign Language Services

Concerns were raised about the lack of sign language services provided by doctor’s surgeries in the UK at the Deaf Day 2009 event in London on the 4th April. People attending the event signed a petition which demands that surgeries use online software called Sign Translate.

SignTranslate is currently a free service for GPs in England, thanks to funding from Sign Health, the health care charity for deaf people.

It is essential that the NHS provide services which mean it can cater for all. Translation services are essential for good communication between the doctor and their patient. Foreign immigrants also often require translation services within the medical environment as the communication must be clear at all times. The patient will feel more comfortable communicating in their preferred or first language.

This free BSL service from SignTranslate was set up in June 2008 and will be free until June 2009. After June 2009 the GPs surgeries will have to pay for this service. Many other companies also provide sign language services at a reasonable cost.

Deaf Child's Name Sign Called "Too Violent"

A young deaf boy in the United States found himself at the center of a controversy last week when his school district objected to the way he signed his name.

Hunter Spanjer is only three years old, and is currently in preschool at the Early Learning Center in Grand Island. His parents have chosen to educate him primarily using Signing Exact English (SEE), though they wouldn’t mind him learning American Sign Language (ASL) as well.

SEE is a system that allows deaf people to use their hands to visually represent English vocabulary and grammar.  It’s easier for hearing people who speak English to learn, and proponents believe it makes it easier for deaf children to learn how to read and write in English.

However, in SEE,  Hunter’s official name sign looks suspiciously like a gun, at least according to the school district.  His father, Brian Spanjer, told their local NBC affiliate what happened:

“About two weeks ago we had been in contact with his early intervention home visitor and she had asked us if we would change his name. They felt like his name was inappropriate or his name sign. I asked her if there is a school policy that we are in violation of. What I was referred to was, well, ‘technically it’s a violation of our weapons policy.’ I was floored.”

The school district, for its part, denies that’s the problem, instead framing the conflict as an ASL vs. SEE issue. They released a statement saying  “Grand Island Public Schools has not changed the sign language name of any student, nor is it requiring any current student with a hearing impairment to change his or her sign language name.”

Technically, that may be true…but Mr. Spanjer said that the school was still refusing to use the toddler’s name sign, resorting to finger-spelling it for him instead.

The National Association for the Deaf and the ACLU have both gotten involved, so the boy’s school will more than likely have to back down soon. According to the Journal Star, Mr. Spanjer has also requested a SEE interpreter for his son, though the district is using ASL exclusively at present.

What do you think? Should a deaf child be prohibited from using his namesign if it looks like a gun? Also, should the school provide a SEE interpreter, since that’s how the boy’s parents want him educated?

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