Untangling the Deaf Community communication complexities

March 8, 2014 |  by

Tribes a play by Nina Raine  depict the communication complexities between two individuals, one who knows signing and the other whose family raised him without the knowledge of signing. The image above is one of the act where the characters Sylvia and Billy interacting with each other. Almost a year before this play (2009) I came across a notable concept design by Mac Funamizu, A wearable sign language interpreter (refer images below courtesy Mac Funamizu)  which would bridge the gap of communication with the Deaf community. I was wondering if this concept would remain a concept for a long time.

Thy Moore’s Law is the truth

The twilight of 2013 ends with Apple acquiring Prime Sense and the dawn of 2014 Google announced it’s Project Tango, DUO3D and other players joining the bandwagon marking the new beginning of the NUI era. Down the lane in the near future we will have mobile phones with 3D sensors enabling best possible interaction naturally after all the best interface is having no interface at all isn’t it.

The academias are closing the gap with research in Sign Language recognisation system.  I would like to highlight the research by the Chinese Academy of Science using MS Kinect (http://www.techinasia.com/china-researchers-and-microsoft-teach-kinect-sign-language/)

Looks like it is very much feasible to create an affordable and portable sign language interpreter and I look forward to share a cup of coffee listening to the signs translated flawlessly and vice versa rather than looking at the couch potatoes doing yoga indoors with the aid of these technologies. And off course plays like Tribes which offers compassionate insights into real- world problems.

Cover image courtesy of the Boston Globe.

Sign Language Translator image courtesy of Mac Funamizu

Snippet of information on the Deaf community for auxiliary reading

There are around 9 million people in UK suffering from deafness or experience significant hearing difficulty that is 1 in 7 of the population. Hearing loss is the most common sensory disability in the developed world and is one of the major reasons for the people to be referred to hospital (RNID, 2000). Age related hearing loss normally begins at around 50 and 55% of people over 60 are deaf or hard of hearing(RNID,1999) In cases of profound acquired deafness, speech may be affected, adding to communication difficulties. Access to public places may be restricted due to a lack of facilities; for example many hearing aid users require a loop system before they can follow a film or participate in a meeting. Deaf people may be more at risk in public places due to a lack of visual or tactile alarm systems.

The Deaf community and how they communicate

According to The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (http://www.rnid.org.uk) many people whose first or preferred language is sign language consider themselves to be part of the ‘Deaf Community’. Some may describe themselves as ‘Deaf’ with a capital D, to emphasise their deaf identity.

Sign language

Sign language uses a range of communicative methods – hand shapes and movements, facial expressions (Lip patterns), and shoulder movements. Some, but not all, profoundly deaf people will use Sign language as their first language; they may consider themselves part of the deaf community. They may have born deaf, or they may have lost their hearing at a young age. BSL (British sign language) is the most widely-used method of signed communication in the UK. There are several sign language in the world, every nation has their own sign language I.e. American Sign language, Chinese sign language, Indian sign language, Italian sign language, Irish sign language et al. Sign language is not universal. Like spoken languages, sign languages emerge naturally in communities and change through time.

For many people in the UK deaf community BSL (British sign language) is their first language and English may be their second language, or even the third language (RNID, www.rnid.org.uk). It is structured in a completely different way to English, and like any language has its own grammar refer the example below.


‘What is your name?’ in English

‘Your name what?’ in BSL (British sign language)

BSL (British sign language) has many regional variations just as spoken languages have different dialects. In different parts of the country, signs will have different meanings, or there will be different signs for one word. For example, there are 10 to 12 variations for the word ‘holiday‘.

Finger spellings

People who use sign language also use finger spelling. Certain words – usually names of people and places – are spelled out on fingers. However, finger spelling alone is not sign language.

Lip patterns

Lip patterns are a very important part of sign language. For example, the hand shape and movement are the same for the signs ‘please‘ and ‘thank you‘, but the lip pattern is different in BSL (British sign language).

There are many researches had been done in the disciplines of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, computer vision, neural networks, and Virtual reality modelling language (VRML), three-dimensional (3D) animation, natural language processing (NLP), and intelligent computer-aided instruction (ICAI) to develop hardware and software that will change the way the Deaf community communicates with others peoples.