Electronic Lifeline: How Cell Phones Are Improving Deaf Communication

Electronic Lifeline: How Cell Phones Are Improving Deaf Communication
By: Sara Collins

A form of technology that was once irrelevant to deaf and hearing-impaired users is today in the process of becoming one of the community’s most important tools of communication.
Although the earliest cell phone models were useless to deaf individuals, the innovations it has undergone since its inception have made mobile technology an integral part of deaf communications. Through texts, videophones and video relay services, deaf people have become more able to converse, do business, and learn – both with one another and with hearing individuals who don’t understand regional sign languages.
The SMS texting feature available on cell phones today was initially one of the only ways deaf people could use phones to communicate with others. While useful, and virtually instantaneous, texting isn’t an ideal method of communication for many. For example, as both deaf and hearing users can tell you, text messages can’t properly convey body language, facial expressions and emotion to the person on the receiving end.
But, recently, there has been a good deal of progress in deaf to non-deaf communications. 
In 2010, students at the University of Washington were working on MobileASL, the first device that would transmit sign language communication through videophones. Their goal was to decrease the data rate without sacrificing battery life, cost, or intelligibility. The team intended for the MobileASL system to be able to be integrated into any phone with a screen-facing camera. By focusing on the image quality of the face and hands, they were able to bring the data rate — the information used to translate signs — down to 30 kilobits per second, a necessary feature when you consider that not many can afford to pay for the data needed to run FaceTime on the go. The software can also tell whether one person is watching the other or in the middle of signing themselves. 
Video relay services (VRS) also provide ways for the deaf community to easily and effectively use a phone to communicate with people who don’t use, or know, sign language. Companies like Sorenson Communications offer videophoning and interpretation services. Users are given a 10-digit local phone number, which is connected to a videophone. When a call is placed, the user can interact with an ASL interpreter via a camera attached to a television. The interpreter then acts as a middleman, speaking to the hearing party and relaying their spoken answers in ASL to the deaf person. This feature is helpful not only for keeping in touch with family and friends, but also for business owners who want to have a regular phone number where their clients can reach them.
In 2011, Sorenson introduced their ntouch PC and ntouch Mobile. This technology allows deaf individuals to use the same video relay service platform, but without being attached to a TV. As Sorenson’s VP of community relations Ron Burdett says, “we can’t very well strap our videophone and our TV to our hip. That’s not very user friendly.” Using ntouch, cellphones and laptops can be used as videophones, permitting hearing-impaired persons to be both mobile and in touch at the same time. Ntouch Mobile was initially set up with the HTC Evo on the Sprint network, but it now works with most cell phones with a front-facing camera (including both Android and iOS systems). ‘Rings’ can be personalized by choosing special vibrations and flash patterns.
In 2012, Sacha DeVelle, founder of the charity organization, Cambridge to Africa, started an “SMS social inclusion project” that put cell phones in the hands of deaf Ugandan orphans, many of whom had never even been exposed to sign language. By pairing deaf children with a hearing “buddy,” with whom they were tasked to communicate through text messages, the project helped integrate the deaf children into the school environment. As a result of this program and its accompanying technology, children who once struggled to be noticed are today thriving intellectually and socially.
Evolving cell phone technology is allowing the deaf community more personal access to people around the world – whether their interactions are with hearing people or other deaf persons. Cell phones allow all of us to have instant communication through SMS or email messages from wherever we are, and with technologies like ntouch and MobileASL, deaf individuals can finally be as connected face-to-face as hearing people have been ear-to-ear.
Sara Collins is a writer for NerdWallet. She helps readers stay informed about subjects ranging from important advances in technology to choosing whole life vs term life insurance.






About Thomsen Young
Thomsen Young is the founder of The Silent Grapevine.You can follow him +Thomsen Young or via Twitter @yadudesup.  You can also follow The Silent Grapevine via Twitter so you will never miss the latest news from The Silent Grapevine! If you like this post LIKE it and share it with your family and friends! 
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