Category Archives: Deaf technology

Deaf Influence on Consumer Technology

deaf-influence-technology-01When hearing people think about exciting new technologies for those who are deaf, their minds most likely jump to the latest developments in cochlear implants or hearing aids. Or perhaps they may vaguely recall reading about any number of devices being developed to translate sign language into speech (or speech into ASL, or ASL into text). When hearing people think about deafness in general, they tend to think only in terms of “problems” and “solutions.” Luxury technology now forms a cornerstone of our sleek American culture, yet very few innovations seek to enhance — or even consider — the real diversity of the modern user base.

deaf-influence-technology-deafgamers-tv-02Chris (“Phoenix”) Robinson, who has severe hearing loss in his right ear and is completely deaf in his left, and Brandon (“Zero”) Chan, who is deaf, began their Twitch.tv channel DeafGamersTV with a seemingly simple goal: break down the barrier between deaf and hearing people in the gaming world. Where most gamers take for granted the ability to just log on and join in, Chris and Brandon found themselves kicked off teams and cyber bullied on some platforms simply because they don’t use microphones to communicate. They began the DeafGamersTV channel to educate and raise awareness about deafness in gaming, and to create a community of people who are interested in connecting across languages to have fun!

deaf-influence-technology-03Underlying the efforts of the DeafGamers is the audist  assumption that people who are deaf do not play video games, and therefore do not need an equal opportunity to participate in the online gaming community. When we look even deeper, we see that assumption across the board when it comes to emerging technologies. It has been assumed that people who are deaf don’t want to watch streamed content, use shortcut features on their devices, or engage in online spaces dominated by hearing individuals. If one barrier to access is the ability to speak and/or hear, then casual socializing, convenience, and luxury are thereby commodities of the hearing majority: even in the “wild west” world of new tech.

deaf-influence-technology-sub-pac-vest-03Innovators and entrepreneurs have only recently begun to recognize a major void in the market for accessible technologies. The DeafGamers were recently contacted by SubPac, a Los Angeles based company specializing in tactile audio technology that transfers low frequencies (bass) directly to a user’s body. “They provided us with a SubPac vest and SubPac chair strap so we can show how it actually helps us feel the game,” explained Robinson.

The SubPac vests have been used and endorsed by artists, from Deaf dancer Saheem Sanchez to Timbaland. During the Dancing With the Stars season 22 finale, Nyle DiMarco’s friends and family section was equipped with SubPacs so this deaf guests could actually enjoy the sensations of the songs while they watched him perform.

deaf-influence-technology-vibeat-05Overseas, The Junge Symphoniker, a symphony orchestra in Hamburg, is utilizing “The Sound Shirt” in their concerts. This wearable device uses strategically placed microphones on the stage to convert the nuanced vibrations of a live symphony orchestra performance into a fully body experience for the person wearing the shirt. Industrial designer Liron Gino recently demoed her prototype for Vibeat, a set of vibrating Bluetooth devices designed to “provide a parallel sensory experience to that which a hearing person might have when using a portable music player with headphones.”

These new devices are part of a growing set of consumer technologies that consider accessibility an asset, instead an inconvenience. This trend demonstrates a shift, however slight, in the way our culture views people who are deaf. No longer perceived as perpetual victims of circumstance whose only desire is communicating with the hearing world; deaf individuals are now being seen as average Americans seeking ways to make life more simple, pleasurable, and fun.

deaf-influence-technology-christine-sun-kim-06People who are deaf are actively dismantling stereotypes, and technology plays a large role in this movement. DJ Robbie Wilde, who is deaf, utilizes a software program called Serrato that allows him to see the different waveforms when he is mixing and performing. Artist and Senior TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim uses a variety of speakers, paints, projections, lights, balloons and more, to translate sound into electricity and vibrations, and then into visual art. The Signly Keyboard App, backed by non-profit ASLized, brought ASL emojis to a very eager community of deaf texters, offering a more enjoyable and precise way to communicate in their own language.

Designing technology specifically for use by the deaf community is all well and good in theory, but unfortunately, there is a financial reality to face. The cost of production for new devices can be high, therefore companies like SubPac must find ways to appeal to a wider market.

deaf-influence-technology-rit-07“I love music and I want deaf people to have the opportunity to experience music,” explains Gary Behm, Director of the RIT/ NTID Center on Access Technology. “But for this type of equipment to be cost-effective, it must also benefit the hearing community. Businesses need to make a profit.”

Behm works with deaf students at NTID to create technologies that help deaf and hard of hearing individuals gain better access to a world designed by, and for, the hearing majority. These students are improving access in homes, businesses, and especially classrooms— opening up an increasing number of opportunities for future generations! Behm says NTID has been very involved in making the STEM field more accessible through educational outreach programs like the Master of Science program in Secondary Education (MSSE), and DeafTEC.

According to the DeafTEC website: “The goal of DeafTEC is to successfully integrate more deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals into the workplace in highly-skilled technician jobs in which these individuals are currently under-represented and underutilized.” Behm emphasizes the importance of laying a strong educational foundation at a young age, and encouraging middle and high school age children who are deaf to explore their interest in technology-related fields. By fostering curiosity and innovation from childhood all the way through higher education, we see the effects ripple out to impact society at large. “Anything that we invent as the deaf will benefit the hearing community as well,’ says Behm.

deaf-influence-technology-08“The principle of universal design ensures people with disabilities can access your website while improving the experience for people without disabilities,” explains David Peter, a software developer who is deaf, in his article for Model View Culture. “Universal design has its roots in architecture; wheelchair users cannot climb sidewalks, so sidewalks dropped their curbs — this also benefitted, among others, skateboarders and parents pushing strollers….If we want the best product experience, accessibility must always be considered a line-item, just like you would consider security, performance, and internationalization.”

With more community members using mainstream platforms to advocate for access, and an increasing number of d/Deaf individuals choosing STEM careers, the technological landscape is adjusting to the reality that people who are deaf use technology just as much, if not more, than everyone else. From smartphone apps to fancy new devices, companies that demonstrate an appreciation for diversity by building accessibility right into their products are sure to gain larger numbers of loyal users. After being disenfranchised and overlooked for too long, people who are deaf are using technology to build a future that actually includes them.

2014: Deaf Culture Totally Had a Moment

This past year was a very visible one for Deaf Culture and American Sign Language. From viral videos to late night TV appearances, mainstream audiences just couldn’t get enough of Deaf superstars or their fascinating visual language. As we leave 2014, let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable Deaf pop culture moments of this year, and hope that 2015 brings even more awareness!

claire-koch-youtube20. KODA Signs Holiday Concert for Deaf Parents:

Okay, technically this happened in December 2013, but it’s so cute I couldn’t leave it out! Kindergartener Claire Koch decided to use ASL at her school holiday concert to make sure her Deaf family members could enjoy the performance, and it was adorable. So adorable, that the video her mother posted went viral with over 8 million views to date!

studiofeed-music-backpack-0219. New Technologies Present New Possibilities:

Each year, new technologies emerge which attempt to simplify and improve the lives of deaf individuals. A number of companies are working on different sign-to-speech translation solutions; while others are taking creative approaches to speech-to-text. One of my favorite ideas of 2014 is the StudioFeed music backpack, which turns music into a full body experience.

atlanta_pride_david_cowan18. Deaf Interpreter demonstrates what equal access really looks like at Atlanta PRIDE:

Deaf interpreter David Cowan is a known favorite among Deaf LBGT individuals for his expressive and appropriately flamboyant work each year at Atlanta PRIDE. Across the country, PRIDE festivals tout themselves as all-inclusive events. Hiring a Deaf Interpreter that deaf/HoH audiences adore is a beautiful example of equality.

santa-claus-speaking-in-asl17. People in Costumes Using ASL with Kids:

From mall Santas to baseball mascots— the people behind the characters have been doing their diversity homework! This year, there were a number of heartwarming stories and videos featuring deaf children who are overjoyed to discover that their favorite characters can communicate with them using ASL. Learning even a few simple phrases can help deaf kids feel included!

 

nick_news_with_linda_ellerbee-now-hear-this-0516. “Now Hear This” Premiers on Nickelodeon

It was pretty inspiring to see a children’s television network take a genuine interest in Deaf Culture. This Nick News special focused on the lives of several deaf young people across the country, and showcased how there are many different ways to be a deaf person in a hearing world.

jonathan-lamberton-asl-nyc-ebloa-press-conference-0615. Deaf Interpreter goes Viral After NYC Ebola Press Conference

As Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered critical information to the citizens of New York regarding the Ebola virus, Deaf Interpreter Jonathan Lamberton addressed the deaf population. Many hearing individuals were fascinated by Lamberton’s dramatic signing style, as it was the first time they had ever seen a Deaf Interpreter in action.

fargo-deaf-character-asl14. Popular TV Show “Fargo” Casts a Deaf Character who Uses ASL:

When creating characters for the FX series Fargo (based on the Coen brother’s film), the show’s creators decided to stray from the usual formula by writing a deaf character into the story. The character, played by actor Russell Harvard, is not included in the show to address deaf issues or explore Deaf culture; he is simply a normal character who happens to be deaf. Hopefully other programs will follow suit, as there are many talented deaf actors out there and all audiences deserve to see more diversity on screen!

derrick-coleman-deaf-athlete-pro-sports-0813. Deaf Athletes in Professional Sports:

Seattle Seahawks player Derrick Coleman gained superstar status not only for his impressive athleticism, but because he proved that deafness does not have to be a barrier in professional sports. Coaches and scouts have taken note, and are now offering more deaf athletes the opportunities they deserve.

robert-panara-deaf-pioneer12. Deaf Pioneers Leave Their Legacy:

Legendary Phyllis Frelich was the inspiration for, and the original star of, “Children of a Lesser God,” a revolutionary piece which introduced audiences to a complex, nuanced deaf character in a lead role. It won a Tony award for best play, and was later adapted into a film which won Marlee Matlin an Oscar. Frelich passed away this year, but her groundbreaking work has inspired and paved the way for generations of deaf performers to come.
In 2014, we also lost professor, writer, and poet Robert Panara. Panara helped translate classic works of literature into ASL, and was instrumental in the establishment of deaf studies higher education curriculum.

violations-of-deaf-citizens-rights11. Violations of Deaf Citizens Rights Gain Mainstream Attention:

The tragic and deplorable treatment of deaf/HoH individuals by the criminal justice system is finally being exposed, thanks to the information age. Stories about deaf people being beaten by cops, wrongfully convicted, and abused in jail were widely read and shared across the internet; leading to an increase in awareness and outrage. While this is not exactly a victory, and certainly not cause for celebration, it has provided visibility to a very real problem and strengthened advocacy efforts.

aclu-heard-know-your-rights-videos10. Marlee Matlin partners with ACLU and HEARD for #KnowYourRights videos:

To help deaf citizens better understand and protect their legal rights, award-winning Deaf actress Marlee Matlin teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union and Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf to create a series of videos. The videos represent a larger movement within the Deaf community for self-empowerment through education. The internet amplifies the power of minority voices, exposes injustice, and provides resources for assertive self advocacy!

MARK-VILLAVER-MOM-DANCE-BATTLE-deaf-129. Professional Dancer and His Deaf Mother Prove Music is for EVERYONE!

Mark Villaver, a hearing dancer, and his Deaf mother share their love of music and dancing in one of the most FUN videos of 2014! Some people mistakenly think deaf people can’t enjoy music. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

fcc-new-captioning-rules8. FCC Cracks Down on Captioning:

The internet has come to the forefront of the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, closed captioning was often neglected when providers made the technology leap; leaving deaf individuals without online access to programming. In 2014 deadlines were set which require providers to caption all shows and video clips, and guidelines were established to guarantee the quality of captions. Over the next few years, we will see all major video content providers moving toward accessibility. Additionally, airlines and other places of public accommodation are feeling increased pressure to provide equal access for deaf patrons.

deaf-med-student-wins-legal-battle-147. Deaf Med Student Wins Legal Battle

After a lengthy court battle, it was determined that devoted deaf med students have the same right to attend medical school as hearing students. We call this a 2014 victory. Hopefully this will lead to more hardworking deaf young people pursuing careers in the medical field.

the-tribe-deaf-movie-in-asl

6. “The Tribe” Indie Film About Deaf Students Wins Over Critics:

The film, which is all sign language without subtitles, was critically acclaimed at Cannes and has won a number of prestigious awards. The lack of captions serves to alienate hearing viewers– who are accustomed to the privilege of communication access– yet the film is engaging enough to keep all audiences along for the ride.

signs-deaf-restaurant-concept-toronto5. Signs Restaurant Opens in Toronto:

This fun concept for a restaurant creates a comfortable place for deaf diners; provides jobs for deaf food industry workers; and helps hearing people get a “taste” of what it’s like to be on the other side of the language barrier. The success of this endeavor may open the door for future deaf-focused businesses.

text-to-911-equal-access-deaf-hoh4. Text to 911 Rolls Out:

On August 8, 2014 the FCC adopted an order requiring wireless carriers and other text messaging providers to deliver emergency texts to 911 call centers. Equal access to emergency services was long overdue!

asl-rap-battle-jimmy-kimmel-live-173. ASL Rap Battle On Jimmy Kimmel Live:

This video instantly went viral because both deaf and hearing audiences love watching expressive ASL paired with hip hop beats. Sign language lends itself so well to the poetry and rhythm of raps. The two incredible interpreters skillfully turned spoken word into visual language, and Deaf performer Jo Rose Benfield wowed people with her enthusiastic interpretations.

deaf-super-heroes-a2. Deaf Superheroes Demonstrate the Power of Diversity:

Throughout pop culture history, superheroes have struggled against the odds to save the day. Until recently, however, superheroes have been notoriously privileged individuals— white and able-bodied— deaf-super-heroes-bwith very few deviations from the norm. In 2014, we saw diversity creeping into the fantasy world of good and evil when audiences were introduced to Deaf superheroes like Blue Ear and Superdeafy. These fictional heroes provide real life role models for Deaf children, demonstrating that deafness is only a minor obstacle to overcome on the way to greatness.

 

camp-mark-seven-happy1. Camp Mark Seven Goes Viral with “Happy” video:

If you haven’t seen this amazing upbeat video online, you must be living under a rock! Camp Mark Seven Deaf Film Camp  nearly broke the internet with their cheerful ASL rendition of Pharrell Williams smash hit “Happy.” Camp Mark Seven teaches young deaf filmmakers how to write, direct, and produce their own films; which helps integrate more deaf voices in pop culture and Hollywood. The video has millions of views online and made people all across America stop and smile. Haven’t seen it?Well what are you waiting for… Get Happy !

2014 was an impressive year for deafness in the media, and these are only a few of the many pop culture moments! Of course we still have a long way to go, but when Deaf Culture becomes more visible, Deaf issues start getting the attention they deserve. By amplifying the voices of the community, and highlighting the accomplishments of deaf individuals, we can help the world see that deafness is not a barrier– merely a small obstacle on the way to greatness!

Have a safe and happy New Year!

If you are interested in learning about Deaf culture and American Sign Language, I have extended a special deal on ASL training. From now until JANUARY 7, schedule 3 personal ASL lessons for only $150. Learn on your own time, at your own convenience. We can meet in person in NYC or via video chat. No matter what level your skills are, from beginner to fluency, we can work together to discover the beautiful silent world of ASL!

Hearing the Voice of the Deaf Community

ASL-HoH-Deaf_Camp-01Often, people ask me “what is going on?” with Deaf culture. More than ever, we are seeing deaf individuals on TV, in the news, and other mainstream sources. For thousands of years, deaf people were silent members of society, sometimes denied basic rights simply because they could not hear. But with new communication technologies emerging each day, the world is finally getting a true glimpse into the complex and elaborate Deaf cultures which quietly evolved over centuries.

storrs-sister_ASL-02As we all know, just because deaf people may not be able to hear or speak doesn’t mean they have nothing to say! Throughout history, deaf people have existed, and they have wanted to engage with the world around them. Since hearing society was generally insensitive (remember, deaf people who couldn’t speak were commonly called “dumb”), deaf people were desperate for others who they could relate to. Until the mid-1500s, the deaf population remained uneducated, disconnected, and largely ignored. Over time, official sign languages began emerging and people slowly started to understand communication as a human right.

telephone-operators-1960s-03If you ever played the “telephone” game as a child, you know how difficult it can be to relay a message through multiple sources. The telephone was a revolutionary invention for Americans, making it possible to stay connected with friends and family from a distance. But it was still decades before the deaf population was able to experience the joys of our networked world. If they wished to make a phone call, deaf individuals had to ask a hearing person to place the call and act as their interpreter. It was not convenient, and certainly not a good way to hold a private conversation.

deaf-hoh-clubsSeeking a sense of community, Deaf clubs began to assemble. Outside of the mainstream, away from the hearing world, deaf people began organizing their own social associations. Deaf clubs were among the very first institutions created BY deaf people FOR deaf people. In private spaces, deaf people could express their hopes, discuss political issues, and share stories of oppression. Here, deaf folklore and jokes evolved. Aided by the use of sign language, Deaf culture became rich and nuanced, while deaf people grew empowered. By the 1940s, these social clubs could be found in nearly every major city across the United States.

tty-teletype-deaf-hoh-05In the 1960s, the Teletype (TTY) was invented. TTY machines allowed messages to be typed then transmitted through the phone lines, where the message was received by another TTY device. If a deaf person wished to call a hearing person who did not have a TTY, then a relay service (TRS) could be used. TRS operators would receive the deaf person’s TTY messages then read them out loud to the hearing entity. While this technology was a step in the right direction, it fell short in a few ways. Firstly, if the deaf individual could not read or write very well in English, this was not an effective method. Additionally, TRS call center employees were often hearing people with little knowledge about Deaf culture or ASL. Because TRS operators were not always linguistically or culturally competent, it was very possible for messages to be miscommunicated, misinterpreted, and misunderstood. Although they certainly had their place, especially in deaf families, TTY was not an ideal solution.

how-tty-teletype-works-06It was not until the end of the 20th century that Deaf Americans were impacted by the communication revolution. The invention of cell phones with text messaging finally offered Deaf Americans the freedom that the telephone provided hearing people. When the internet became a household utility, instant messaging and chat rooms allowed deaf people to make new connections. These easy-to-use methods were convenient not only for Deaf people to communicate with one another, but they could now chat directly with hearing people. No more “telephone” game!

deaf-hoh-facetime-skype-video-call-07On the internet deaf people began to meet each other, explore Deaf culture more deeply, and express themselves just like everyone else. As Internet speeds got faster, uploading and streaming videos became simple. Instead of typing out their stories in English, deaf people could now comfortably record video in ASL. By captioning or doing voice-overs, deaf video bloggers could reach both deaf and hearing audiences. For the first time, deaf stories could be told by deaf people directly to mainstream audiences without a third party. Now the whole world can finally see that deaf people are individuals with their own personalities.

video-relay-service-deaf-hohThe ability to have a long distance conversation in sign language has been monumental. Using video chat, deaf people can now converse freely using ASL; whether they are around the block or across the ocean. Apps such as Skype and FaceTime empower deaf people to stay in contact and share their experiences. Video Relay Service (VRS) call centers– staffed with certified ASL interpreters who understand Deaf culture and ASL linguistics– now provide a way for deaf people to make phone calls. Using VRS, deaf people can quickly communicate with hearing people, allowing them to participate more fully in areas of everyday life where they had normally been excluded. VRS is used in businesses across the country to provide deaf access, and empowers deaf employees to become engaged in the workplace.

deaf-hoh-facetime-video-call-09This all takes us to our modern day — with the widespread use of texting, instant messaging, and video chats. The internet has become the biggest Deaf club in history! Deaf people are blogging, vlogging, and connecting instantly on any number of social networks. With the help of modern technology, deaf people have access to better education and communication than ever before. My deaf nieces are growing up in a world where they can call aunt Lydia on FaceTime, and tell me about their day using their native language: ASL. My deaf sister and I can text gossip back and forth, or I can just share a photo of the leaves in Central Park with my mother. I know I am blessed to live in a time where I can be so connected to my deaf family and friends, because it wasn’t always so easy.

deaf-nation-cafeWhen people ask me why they are suddenly seeing so much about Deaf culture in the media, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride. From deep roots of oppression, Deaf Americans quietly cultivated a beautiful culture all their own. The internet allows hearing society to access a wealth of deaf art, music, poetry, news, and advocacy information. Using the tools of the modern age, the Deaf community is able to amplify it’s voice. Finally, the mainstream world is staring to listen.

Deaf Rights: What You Need to Know

Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski_MAWorking in the Deaf community, I’ve noticed a great deal of confusion surrounding the legal rights of the Deaf. Both Deaf and hearing individuals have difficulty understanding what accommodations deaf people are entitled to, and how exactly those needs
get met. I recently had a chance to discuss these important issues with Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski, who serves as a Deaf legal liaison, and Deaf discrimination attorney Andrew Rozynski, Esq.

Deaf Rights

Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski — who serves as Deaf Liaison at Eisenberg & Baum Law Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing — explains that Deaf persons frequently encounter barriers when trying to protect their rights. Profoundly deaf since birth, Eisenberg-Michalowski has personally witnessed discrimination against deaf individuals from all walks of life, in a wide variety of scenarios. Utilizing her extensive experience, Eisenberg-Michalowski serves as an advocate for deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind individuals; helping people better understand how to protect themselves against discrimination.

professional-asl-communication-nyc“Imagine yourself as a deaf individual with virtually no knowledge regarding the law. You may have been faced with job discrimination, personal injury, sexual harassment, or denied ASL interpreters for medical care. Obviously, legal assistance is needed, but the lawyer who takes your case may have no knowledge of Deaf culture or the needs of deaf individuals.” Eisenberg-Michalowski explains that many attorneys will take valid discrimination cases, but neglect to provide guidance for their Deaf client. “Without interpreters, clear communication with your lawyer is nonexistent. Where are your rights?

“Over the years, many laws have been passed in order to improve quality of life for deaf individuals,” she continued. “But even with today’s laws, I still see so much Audism– a term meaning the oppression of the Deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind.”

Andrew_Rozynski_EsqAndrew Rozynski, a Deaf discrimination litigation attorney and partner at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, offers some insight into Federal legal obligations to provide reasonable accommodations. Rozynski comes from a Deaf family, and his clientele is almost exclusively deaf. He is one of only a handful of attorneys in the United States who focuses his practice on the protection of Deaf persons rights.

“As a Deaf rights attorney, I focus my practice of law on combating discrimination against the Deaf in a variety of settings,” said Rozynski. “Hospitals, government, businesses; these are just some of the areas of everyday life where Deaf people require accommodations.”

ada-deaf-hohThe Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires many public and private entities to provide reasonable accommodations for the Deaf to ensure effective communication. What is a reasonable accommodation varies from situation to situation, and the need for accommodation can be different in each setting. Since each Deaf person has individual needs, determining what accommodation is appropriate can sometimes be confusing. Rozynski offered to elaborate:

“Reasonable accommodation is very ‘fact specific,’ which means it is evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” he explained. “It really depends on many factors, however, two important factors that are utilized are: (1) What are the Deaf person’s needs to facilitate effective communication, and (2) The length and complexity of the communication.”

So, how do you know if an interpreter is necessary?

“Assuming the Deaf person uses ASL as their primary form of communication, hospitals are one setting where a qualified sign language interpreter is almost always appropriate because critical communication concerning medical treatment is being conducted. In government settings– such as court proceedings or interviews with the police– interpreters are crucial for effective communication, because ones’ legal rights can be seriously impacted by miscommunication. In the employment setting, having interpreters for business meetings ensures that deaf employees can participate equally in the workplace.”

three_people_ASL_signingRozynski went on to provide further examples. “In the alternative, if you go in to a sandwich shop and request an interpreter, would that be appropriate under those circumstances? Probably not. “

“But, say a Deaf person is looking for a house and needs an interpreter to effectively communicate with the real estate broker. That might be an instance where people don’t know they have the right to request an interpreter. Or if one is getting a mortgage from a bank, that is another instance where a deaf person may be entitled to an interpreter so that they can fully understand the terms of the agreement as explained by the bank”

For brief interactions, like those in retail and restaurant locations, writing notes may be an appropriate option. The amount of information being communicated is often minimal and the content of the communication is simple. However, note writing is not always the solution.

ASL-in-hospital-setting“Sometimes doctors think writing notes back and forth for an appointment is an effective means of communication. It’s often not,” He continued. “Imagine trying to have a 20 minute phone conversation via handwriting. Would you explain yourself just as thoroughly? When people write, they often only give brief summaries of the information they want to convey. Additionally, people whose primary language is ASL may have some difficulty with the English language, making this method ineffective.”

The more critical and complex the communication, and the longer the interaction; the higher likelihood an interpreter will be needed. For example, a business training seminar or disciplinary meeting would both be times where an interpreter is an appropriate accommodation, because the information being relayed to the Deaf individual is very important and specific. ASL interpreters also serve as cultural mediators, bridging any gaps between Deaf and hearing culture so all parties can fully understand the messages being relayed.

“What accommodation is needed, is what provides for effective communication for the Deaf person,” said Rozynski.

asl-in-workplace-video-relayOne strategy that is being utilized across the country is Video Relay Interpreter (VRI) systems, which provide a professional interpreter through a video connection. “There are a lot of Deaf people who complain that VRI does not provide effective communication because the system will freeze, or not turn on, or staff members who are trying to use the VRI don’t know how to use it. Sometimes the screen is very small, or not suitable for the situation. For example, if someone is giving birth they often cannot look at a tablet off to their bedside. It’s generally not effective. Providing effective communication is key to each situation.”

In the work setting, both employer and employee should work together in an interactive process. The Deaf employee should let their manager know clearly what their communication needs are, and what situations they would like an interpreter for. Employers and places of public accommodation should analyze whether they are truly doing everything possible to ensure the Deaf individual receives equal access to all information being provided by the organization. Deaf parties should be realistic about what accommodations are necessary for each specific situation.

asl-in-metropolitan-museum-of-art“People often think that they can just refuse VRI without trying it, which isn’t always the case. Often times, people should try VRI if it’s offered. If it is not effective, you have the right to request a live ASL interpreter so that you can be provided effective communication” said Rozynski. VRI, if it works properly, can be a solution for short one-on-one communication—for instance when a hearing employee needs to have a brief conversation with a Deaf coworker. But in situations where there are multiple parties speaking, the information is critical, or where the equipment is not functioning correctly, VRI is usually unable to provide effective communication for Deaf individuals.

If you are a hearing entity responsible for providing reasonable accommodation, Rozynski has a few tips to ensure you provide equal access. Step one is contacting a reputable interpreting agency. Look for agencies that employ RID Certified interpreters and have a great deal of experience working with Deaf consumers. Businesses should be aware that if a meeting will last more than an hour, depending on the type of meeting, it may be required that 2 interpreters are provided. Also, make your interpreter request as far in advance as possible so that there will be no problems with scheduling, and the interpreter has ample lead time to prepare. Providing a professional interpreter is not optional when it is the only means of providing effective communication for the Deaf individual.

“Using family members or coworkers is also not ok,” he said, unless the coworker is designated by the business entity as a qualified staff ASL interpreter. Otherwise “it’s not appropriate.”

asl-in-the-workplaceIf you are a Deaf person requesting accommodation, Rozynski advises you communicate with a manager and keep a record of your requests. “I always recommend people make their requests in writing, just to be clear that a request has been made. If you still do not get your request for accommodation, I would suggest going up the chain as far as possible. If you still feel like you’re not being provided appropriate accommodations, ask for the reason why.”

Rozynski says that business often claim they are unable to afford sign language interpreters. “This is often disingenuous. Hospitals, banks, and big corporations are often able to pay for an interpreter.” He points out that the ADA looks at the financial strength of the whole organization when considering if an interpreter is cost prohibitive. A large museum, for example, may not refuse to provide an interpreter because it causes them to lose money on a $20 ticket. The same goes for doctors and dentists offices. It is the whole entity that is looked at, not the cost of the individual service provided.

“If you’re an employer or you’re a place of public accommodation, you have an obligation to provide effective communication to that Deaf person. If you do not provide effective communication to a Deaf person, you could potentially be opening yourself up to liability and have a lawsuit that could cost your organization much more than the cost of the interpreting services provided.”

deaf-hoh-asl-in-court-reportingIf the Deaf party still feels that equal access is not being provided, that person may have a legal claim.

“I would suggest someone who feels that their rights are violated should contact either an attorney or a local advocacy organization,” advised Rozynski. “Some attorneys do charge to take on discrimination cases; others don’t have any upfront charges and take the case on contingency, which means you don’t pay unless you win or the case settles. Many attorneys offer free consultations, and will let you know whether you have a viable case or not. It is also important to note that all cases have a statute of limitations, so if you feel your rights may have been violated an attorney should be contacted as soon as possible.”

“I think a lot of people are scared to take this next step because they worry that they will have to pay money to proceed with a lawsuit. Another reason for peoples hesitation is that they might not be comfortable with the legal process. This can be tough for people because they don’t know what to expect. Finding a law firm that a Deaf person can be comfortable with is key. The Deaf public should know that attorneys do have an obligation to provide interpreters– some attorneys are not even aware of that!”

child-asl-signingEisenberg-Michalowski adds that Deaf liaisons are also critical to the legal process because they can empower Deaf individuals to actively advocate for themselves. “We have had clients who are shocked at how involved they are in their cases, when compared to their previous law firms. One client told me that his (former) lawyer just made decisions without him. This treatment is a violation of these individuals’ legal rights.”

At the end of the day, most Deaf people do not want to go through a lengthy court battle to get the accommodations they deserve. They just want the equal access they are legally entitled to by the law. Providing reasonable accommodation is not a burden, it should be an expected cost of doing business. Welcoming Deaf individuals into all spaces is not just the law. It’s the right thing to do.

“I think the point is that these discrimination laws were created so Deaf people could equally participate in society,” concludes Rozynski. “It is our obligation, as a whole society, to ensure Deaf people have equal participation and that they can access the same kind of information that hearing people do in any type of setting.”

If you have any further questions, Andrew Rozynski and Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski can be contacted at:

Eisenberg & Baum, LLP 24 Union Square East, 4th Floor New York, NY 10003 Voice: (212) 353-8700 Video Phone: (646) 807-4096

 

Can Digital Devices Replace Interpreters?

best-ASL-interpreter-NYCWhile walking the streets of New York, nearly every person I see is staring down at a screen, fully engaged with digital devices. Through technology, our world has become incredibly connected; yet disconnected at the same time. There is comfort in being able to communicate without regard to time or distance but, somehow all this personal contact seems so impersonal, so two dimensional, so unnatural. Are we all truly eager to replace all human interaction with virtual realities?

google-gestureDigital Devices for Interpretation

Last week, the internet was buzzing with news of a new device called Google Gesture, a wristband which could reportedly translate sign language into spoken language in real time. The viral clip turned out to be just a concept video released by a group of marketing students in Sweden, but it stirred up some interesting discussions about the role of technology in cross-cultural communication.

Although most deaf/HoH are content with their lives the way they are, it’s nice to imagine a world where everyone is able to communicate seamlessly, and deaf people are not excluded from certain spaces. Over the past 30 years, technology has been viewed as a solution to provide deaf individuals greater opportunity.

cochlear-implant-asl-courses-nycThe most well known device, the cochlear implant, is an electronic device which allows the deaf wearer to “hear” by amplifying sounds and stimulating the auditory nerve. Cochlear implants require invasive surgery, are very costly, and do not allow the wearer to hear exactly the same way a hearing person does — sounds are often muddied, robotic, and can be difficult for the brain to process. Cochlear implants are not perfect, and they create a cultural grey area for wearers, who sometimes feel like they are neither Deaf nor hearing. Still, over the past few decades these devices have provided thousands of wearers with the ability to hear sounds they would otherwise not have been able to hear, and live the kind of lives they so choose to live. Having options is a positive thing.

TTY-deaf-assistive-deviceText messaging was one of the greatest communication revolutions for the Deaf community. Before the widespread use of cell phones, deaf calls had to be made using either a Text Telephone (TTY) or a Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS). TTY allows deaf individuals to type messages, which are then sent over a telephone line to the other party as text. TTY requires both the sender of the message and the receiver to have a TTY device, while TRS involves the hearing party communicating through an operator, who then types responses for the deaf person to read on their TTY.  Relay operators were often unfamiliar with Deaf culture, therefore unable to mediate terminology that did not translate directly. Although definitely a useful invention, TTY/TRS can be inaccurate, cumbersome, and was never a very simple solution.

best-ASL-interpreter-NYCSpeech-to-text services, such as Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), have emerged in the past decade as a “real-time captioning” solution. Using this method, spoken words are transcribed into text, either by a live person or by a computer program. For one-on-one situations where there are no other options available, speech-to-text options are certainly better than nothing. This is an excellent option for hard of hearing individuals or people for whom ASL is not their native language. But the truth is that the technology is unable provide accurate translation and contextual interpretation, meaning messages can easily be misunderstood. Any periphery noise, secondary speakers, or unusual inflections can easily lead to confusion. In addition, speech-to-text does not provide a way for deaf sign language users to respond, therefore only facilitates one way communication.

video-relay-deaf-hoh-nycThe Deaf community were among the first adopters of video chat technologies. Services such as Skype, Google Hangout, and FaceTime have made deaf-to-deaf phone calls infinitely simpler. I can’t even tell you how lovely it is to be able to video chat with my family members using ASL! For conversations between deaf and hearing people, Video Relay Interpreting offers a simple and cost-effective solution. Remote video interpreters are actually certified ASL interpreters who have knowledge of deaf culture, interpreting ethics, and how to mediate any cross-cultural misunderstandings. VRI is certainly convenient, and this technology offers deaf people more opportunity to engage with hearing entities. At the end of the day, however, VRI is designed for brief one-on-one dialogues, since remote interpreters are unable to see or hear every person in the room when they are speaking.

Google-Glass-deaf-hoh-interpreter-nycAs new devices improve all areas of our lives, making communication and information more accessible than ever, will we see a shift away from using live interpreters? In my opinion, interpreting a person’s words is a very delicate and human process. As revolutionary as emerging technologies might be, high quality ASL interpreters simply can not be replaced by a machine. Facial expressions, body language, tone, and context are all very important aspects of dialogue. In fact, research suggests that anywhere between 60% and 90% of interpersonal communication is nonverbal, which means words alone rarely covey the full message. This is specifically true of signed languages.

best-ASL-interpreter-NYCAmerican Sign Language is not a direct translation of English, it is a language all it’s own, with unique grammar, prose, and syntax. Deaf culture has it’s own humor, slang, and turns of phrase. ASL interpreters serve as both language and cultural interpreters. We bridge the social gaps, working to ensure deaf consumers have full access to any spoken English situations they choose. In a noisy environment, or when speakers are using ambiguous terminology, a live interpreter can mediate and provide understanding for all parties.

Technology has improved deaf access in so many ways, but software and screens can never fully replicate the feel of a conversation. They can not comprehend irony, translate sarcasm, or convey emotion the way a live interpreter can. New devices will continue to make the lives of deaf Americans easier, and for this we should all be grateful! When it comes to really communicating between the deaf and hearing worlds, however, no device can replace the human element of a professional ASL interpreter.