In April 2016, two University of Washington undergraduate sophomore students named Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi created SignAloud.
SignAloud consists of a pair of gloves that is supposed to translate sign language (I’m assuming this is just for ASL - American Sign Language) into speech and text (which, again, I’m assuming is just English).
The video introducing this product has gone viral. You’ve likely seen it on your Facebook feed, shared by your friends multiple times.
I’ve seen mostly two reactions to this invention and they’re both very different from each other.
The hearing community, or more specifically, the hearing community that knows very little to nothing about sign language, d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, Deaf culture, etc., praises this invention. They’re under the impression that these gloves will close the communication gap between hearing people and deaf people.
On the other hand, you have the Deaf community, along with the hearing community who does know a little bit about Deaf people and Deaf culture, who will tell you that this simply doesn’t really do anything.
Now, those obviously aren’t the only opinions, but they are the two most popular ones. You will also find a group, a mixture of the two groups actually, that can see this going somewhere and that it may have a point.
After watching the video, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is only an invention for hearing people by hearing people. It is nothing more than a device that will only help hearing people. I’ll tell you why.
First of all, this is supposed to translate ASL into spoken English, but how does that work when the two guys making it don’t even know ASL themselves? Now, we know I’m not fluent in the language, but I do know that what Thomas is signing is nonsensical. Plus, those who are fluent in ASL can back my statement up because they’ve been saying the same thing. He completely butchered his message from the beginning. If you can’t do “My name is”, that’s a problem. He also attempts to sign, “Hello. I’m well. Thank you.” His “I’m well” is 100% incorrect. Sure, it’s a prototype, but if you can’t even get “Hello, my name is,” and “Hello, I’m well. Thank you.” correct, then that’s a problem. You can’t make a piece of technology translate a language if you don’t know the language yourself. Facial expression is also a big part of the language and these gloves don’t include that.
Also, you know how people who use spoken language have accents? The same works when using sign language. Not everyone signs the same way, not everyone’s hands move the same. Not all signs in ASL are the same, as there are regional signs.
Secondly, they say this is an invention that will help Deaf people who use ASL communicate with hearing people who don’t know ASL better. Okay, but how? Because if a Deaf person is using the gloves, the hearing person will know what they’re saying, but how do they respond back in a way that will be understood? Keep in mind that the gloves are meant to eliminate the use of phones and pen and paper.
If you watch the demo in the video, you’ll see one signing “How are you?” How does the hearing girl respond? By talking, using spoken English. There are d/Deaf and hard of hearing people who have residual hearing and might be able to read lips, yes, but what if that doesn’t work? In the demo, they act as if speaking is the correct thing to do when it isn’t. How does that help us? How does that help a more profoundly d/Deaf person who relies on ASL, not lip reading and/or residual hearing?
I’ve spent a long time thinking about what situations these could be used in. People said emergencies, but do you think we’re really going to be carrying a pair of bulky gloves around on a trip to Target? Emergencies happen when and where you least expect them. That's why they're called emergencies. Keeping them in hospitals and police stations was also suggested, but you’d be better off getting an interpreter, which is required by law in the United States, and actually have 100% access to communication instead of being on a one-way street.
People say that it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a first step in the right direction. But how can that be true if the first step isn’t even right and isn’t actually doing or improving anything?
Another thing to note - At 1:55, Thomas says that no other commercial product translates sign language into text, that nothing else is in the market. That’s actually false.
In 2013, the ProDeaf app was created. ProDeaf translates Portuguese into Brazilian Sign Language and English into American Sign Language. In my opinion (and a friend’s), the ProDeaf app is better than SignAloud seeing as it’s more portable, can be used by both parties, and is free.
In the early 2000s, others have made an attempt at ASL fingerspelling gloves but were unable to do so due to technology not being up to date. In 2012, the Faculty of Engineering at the Islamic University of Lebanon made ASL fingerspelling gloves with the same technology, but the project fell through due to the gloves being inefficient.
To wrap it all up, if you’re going to invent something that translates a language, be sure to have a basic understand in that language. I can’t become a teacher and teach students Mandarin if I don’t know the language and expect to be taken seriously or be helpful.