Most of the general public doesn’t understand sign language. For those who are deaf or have hearing disabilities, it’s difficult to communicate with hearing individuals. If someone needs help at the grocery store or wants to order food at a restaurant, they often need to hire an interpreter. As a result, this can be confusing for both individuals.
Luckily, a new high-tech glove is able to translate sign language into speech, so deaf people can easily communicate. Gone are the days when they need an interpreter. The glove helps them “speak” in real-time just like everyone else.
Challenges for Deaf People
An estimated 466 million people worldwide have hearing loss, typically from genetic causes, complications at birth, infectious diseases, chronic ear infections, the use of particular drugs, excessive noise and aging. These individuals suffer from many social and emotional complications, mostly due to their lack of communication with hearing individuals. They feel lonely, isolated and frustrated that they can’t communicate with their friends and peers.
In the US, deaf people learn American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate, often with fellow deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals or with people who know ASL. To communicate with others, they need to hire an interpreter, which can be costly and inconvenient.
Finding a Solution
Recognizing the dilemma, scientists at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) designed a high-tech glove that translates ASL into speech in real-time. This allows deaf people to communicate with anyone they meet without hiring an interpreter.
The device has sensors that run along the four fingers and thumb to identify each word, phrase and letter in ASL. Then, those signals are sent wirelessly to a smartphone, which translates them into spoken words at a rate of one word per second. As someone is signing, the smartphone picks up on these signals without any delay, as though the deaf person is verbally speaking to a hearing individual.
“Our hope is that this opens up an easy way for people who use sign language to communicate directly with non-signers without needing someone else to translate them,” commented lead researcher Jun Chen. The project would help ease communication concerns for everyone involved. He added, “In addition, we hope it can help more people learn sign language themselves.”
Facing the Criticism
The new high-tech device has been criticized by several individuals in the deaf community, arguing that it is redundant to other technological equipment already available to them. “Deaf signers already make extensive use of text-to-speech or text translation software on their phones, or simply write with pen and paper, or even gesture clearly,” explained Gabrielle Hodge, deaf post-doctoral researcher from the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL) at University College London. “There is nothing wrong with these forms of communication.”
The device focuses on how to make communication easier for hearing people who are unfamiliar with ASL. Yest, Despite hoping that this “translation glove” may help build bridges, many individuals in the deaf community do not want to feel like deaf people have to serve hearing communities.
“Deaf communities are heterogeneous in how people identify themselves,” said Julie A. Hochgesang, a professor in the Department of Linguistics at Gallaudet University. “Inventions like signing gloves pigeonhole deaf people and put the communication burden on deaf people.”
While not everyone is on board with the new device, there are other potential benefits that are worth testing. For example, the device is lighter than other wearable systems. It creates real-time sign language translations that work faster than other devices.
In addition, scientists even added adhesive sensors to their testers located between their eyebrows and on one side of their mouths. The sensors captured their facial expressions, which helped with verbal communication. If they were happy, the speech tone would be more positive than if the individual was sad or frustrated.
The device might not be for everyone, but it doesn’t hurt to try. If anything, it’s paving the way for a future where hearing and deaf individuals can communicate more easily.
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