Improving Accessibility: Why More Technology Isn’t Always the Answer

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.

What To Do Instead

Machine translation for sign language may not be practical any time soon, but that’s no excuse for leaving the deaf community out in the cold.  Stop expecting science fiction technology to save the day. Here’s what to do instead.

Offer Interpreters When Possible

For deaf people who use sign language to communicate, sometimes there’s no replacement for a skilled sign language interpreter.  Sign language is their mother tongue. So, although most are also fluent in written English, and a pen and paper will often suffice for casual interactions, having sign language interpreters on hand is vital for legal, medical and educational situations.

Only Use Real, Certified Interpreters

For important communications, you should offer interpreters wherever possible . . . but please, make sure the interpreters know what they’re doing! There have been a disturbingly high number of instances where organisations have used amateurs who happened to know some sign language and gotten signed gibberish as a result.

For example, last year, Florida’s Manatee County held a press conference in anticipation of Hurricane Irma. Unfortunately, they didn’t go through the steps of finding a qualified interpreter. Instead, they tapped an employee with a deaf brother. The result? Improperly signed warnings about a “pizza bear monster.” It would have been hilarious, except that it was an emergency situation and a lot of deaf residents had no idea how they should prepare.

The bottom line: Being a sign language interpreter is a skilled, complicated and challenging job. Unfortunately, hearing people often underrate the level of professional skill it requires.  Don’t make this mistake.  A reputable language services firm can usually find you a certified interpreter even on short notice. At K International, all of our linguists are CACDP (The Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People) approved and registered.

Closed Captioning and Live Captioning

Closed captioning and live captioning are another great way to make your content and events accessible to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. People who became deaf later in life and didn’t grow up with sign language as a first language may prefer captions and speech-to-text.

In our work for Transport for London and the Greater London Authority, we provide both in-person BSL interpreters and speech-to-text reporting. By doing so, we ensure that we’re serving the varied communication needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees.

Recorded Sign Language

Recorded sign language is an excellent way to make your videos accessible to people who are more comfortable communicating in sign language. Adding BSL overlays as an option to your end users makes your content available to a broader audience.

Get Feedback from the People Who Matter

Get feedback from deaf and hard-of-hearing customers and clients.  Again, the problem with sign language gloves is that they are built to cater to hearing people, to allow them to communicate with deaf people without bothering to make an extra effort or learn anything new. They leave deaf and hard-of-hearing people asking questions like “Why does everything in our society have to cater to you?”

What’s the easiest way to make sure your accessibility initiatives are actually helpful? It’s simple. Ask the people you’re trying to help.  Hold focus groups. Ask for feedback.  If something’s not working for them, change it.

To quote the Audio Accessibility blog (because I don’t think I could say it any better if tried): “Communication barriers can be best removed by adding a HUMAN touch, not by gloves or other technologies.”

If you’re looking for qualified BSL interpreters or other accessibility services, we can help. Take a look at what we do and contact us to discuss your next project!

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