Out of all of the different technologies that science fiction writers have dreamed up, has anything lodged itself in the popular imagination as firmly as the “universal translator?” This fascination with shiny new technology extends to improving accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, where it does more harm than good.
Witness the periodic hype around “sign language gloves.” Every couple of years, someone else invents “sign language gloves” that supposedly translate sign language into writing or speech. Journalists cover the devices enthusiastically.
We’ve seen the same tendency this month with the news of a workaround that allows Amazon’s Alexa to understand some signs. This is better than it relying on voice alone (and leaving deaf users out of the loop entirely).
But there’s a problem. Just as machine translation is still no replacement for a skilled human translator, sign language gloves (and other technologies that rely on machine translation) are not a replacement for sign language interpreters.
Here’s why more technology isn’t always the answer to improving accessibility (as well as some suggestions for improving accessibility that can help).
Sign Language Gloves: Why They Don’t Work
Sign language gloves sound like such a great idea (if you’re not deaf, that is). Why don’t they work? There are several reasons:
- Translation is complicated, even between two verbal languages.
- Translating between a verbal language and a sign language adds an extra layer of complexity.
- When deaf people use sign language, they’re not just “talking” with their hands. They use their whole bodies and facial expressions. There’s no way a pair of gloves can capture all of that. Other devices that rely on cameras might be able to, but would be a pain for deaf people to use.
- Because translating between sign language and spoken language is such a big job, the technology involved is too complicated and expensive to be practical.
- Most of the time, these are projects done by engineering students with little to no input from the deaf community.
- Most “sign language glove” prototypes only translate fingerspelling. Do you spell out every word you speak? No? Yeah, neither do deaf people, if they can help it.
The root of the problem is that sign language gloves cater to the wants of the hearing population instead of the needs of the deaf signing community. Read more