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Sign of the Times: Deaf Find Their Voices via Mobile Video and Apps

The emergence of video MMS and chat, in particular, keep the deaf and hard of hearing connected—all the while preserving sign language



Image courtesy of John Eischeid

Wireless gadgets have changed the way nearly everyone communicates, but one group has benefited more than others: the deaf. For those who cannot make a voice call, texting and video, in particular, have not only opened them up to the hearing world and to each other, but also allowed them to use American Sign Language (ASL), often their native language.

About 17 percent (36 million) of U.S. adults report some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Md. Thanks to increases in bandwidth and technologies that use it, the deaf and hard of hearing can now communicate via texting, Blackberry messaging, video multimedia messaging service (MMS), and video chats over Google's video chat service (to name a few). New video-friendly mobile devices, including Apple's iPhone 4 and HTC's EVO, have likewise helped.

Kevin "Scubaby" Payne, who is deaf, describes himself as a "travelholic" and keeps a video blog in ASL. He spends up to eight hours a day using FaceTime, the iPhone 4's video chat application. "And I must say I've been looking forward for something like FaceTime," the 32-year-old travel counselor from Florida wrote via e-mail, adding that he jumped out of his chair when he first learned of the app. Payne, who is a fan of the Facebook page Deaf International FaceTime Exchange, has used FaceTime to communicate with other deaf people as far away as Scotland.

FaceTime is integrated with the phone's Contacts software, and using it is as easy as making a voice call or sending a text. After finding a friend or family member's entry in the phone's Contacts directory, the caller touches the FaceTime button on the phone's screen. Once connected, FaceTime users rely on the iPhone's front-facing video camera to record their conversation (whether verbal or via ASL) and the phone's display screen to watch the person on the other end of the line.

Apple has a Web page devoted to how the iPhone 4 is accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people, but the FaceTime application is absent. A commercial for the new iPhone, however, includes a brief conversation in ASL between a couple. Other iPhone features for the deaf include closed-captioned movies, visual and vibrating alerts, and TTY, or  teletypewriter, support. (TTY is also known as TDD, or telecommunication device for the deaf.)

The deaf are also making use of Qik, Inc.'s video chat app for HTC's EVO mobile phone. The app developers did not have the deaf or ASL in mind, but now the company is considering it as a future avenue, according to Allyson Campa, a consultant who is the acting head of marketing at Redwood City, Calif.–based Qik.

Previously, many deaf people relied solely on TTY to communicate over long distances. To transmit text messages, these devices use traditional phone lines, which can transmit a maximum of 56 kilobits per second. More advanced 3G networks transmit at speeds up to 35 times faster. Wi-fi, which Apple's FaceTime uses, promises a maximum about 1,000 times faster than a traditional phone line.

Many use this increased bandwidth to share photos and videos or otherwise entertain themselves online, but the deaf community is using it to convey necessary elements of their language and communicate more naturally. Because ASL relies on facial expressions as well as hand movements, texting is of limited use. "It requires that many of them, for whom ASL is their first language, use their second language," says Ann Bardsley, public relations director at Sorenson Communications Inc., a company that provides communications services to the deaf and has an ancillary iPhone app.

"For example, the difference between a yes/no question and a simple declarative sentence in ASL is indeed on the face (in the eyebrows and the head tilt)," Tom Humphries, a deaf associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of many books about the deaf, wrote via e-mail. "The difference between 'blue' and 'very blue' [both use the same sign] is in the eyebrows and the lips."

"In other words, they are linguistic forms, not emotive/psychological expressions," noted Humphries, adding that these are not situations in which just any facial expression will do. Video chat conveys these elements of ASL.

Some deaf and hard of hearing use cochlear implants and hearing aids for spoken English, but many prefer ASL, which is an important part of deaf culture. There are even ASL poetry slams in which poets perform their works in ASL.

"E-mail technology, pager and texting technology, and now video technology, are starting to reach the point where they can be manufactured in forms that do meet these culturally mediating requirements within the culture of deaf people—and yes, the impact has been felt," Humphries says, although he acknowledges that iPhones are not cheap and these new tools might not meet every person's needs.

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