Pure technology not the only answer to accessibility

When it comes to accessibility products for deaf or hard-of-hearing users, sometimes cool technology alone doesn't cut it. That's because translating for the deaf involves subtle cultural issues that no technology can fully overcome.

At the IDEAS Section 508 conference yesterday in Washington, Hewlett-Packard Co. officials demonstrated a product called iCommunicator. The PC application accepts live voice input, converts it to on-screen text, then converts the text to video images of sign language. The software draws on a library of several thousand short clips of a professional sign linguist, according to Gail Rosenberg, product manager for iCommunicator.

Because it links text to the video clips, the signing produced is in word-for-word order, not idiomatic English. And it included what several deaf observers thought was an inordinate amount of finger-spelling. Thus the video output is mechanical and disconcertingly unlike American Sign Language?in effect the signing equivalent of eerie synthesized audio voices.

Rosenberg, who is also a certified audiologist, said that as more whole signed words are added to the library, the amount of finger-spelling, in which the signer spells out words letter by letter, would be reduced.

More revealing was the question from a deaf observer of the demonstration. Fredrick Waldorf, a retired FBI employee, asked whether the model in the video clips was deaf or hearing. Rosenberg said the model is hearing and has a deaf son.

Asked afterward the significance of the question, Waldorf, joined by Stephanie Phillips of the Agency for International Development and Brenda Sue Pickering of the Interior Department, said through an interpreter that skilled signers include inflection and emotion through their faces and hand movements. And, while not criticizing iCommunicator itself, they added that deaf people can tell whether a signer is deaf by body language and style in arm and hand motions. Often, they said, deaf people are sensitive that such cues that can create emotional affinity with the signer, whether live or on video.

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