Advances in technology help deaf, hearing worlds communicate

New popular technological advancements, such as the recent release of the iPhone 5, can cause excitement for different reasons. For the hearing world, it’s for the improvements and new gadgets that will entertain and increase convenience. For those deaf or hard of hearing, however, it can serve as a tool to communicate in ways never before possible.

Take the succession of networks that have been released for cellphones. The switch from 3G to 4G was praised for its increased speed and improved clarity. For the deaf though, it was seen as the introduction to being able to call another person for the first time.

Matthew Dye, assistant professor in Speech and Hearing Science, teaches a class on United States deaf culture. He explained how the introduction of video telecommunication had a major impact on the deaf community.

“3G really struggled to support sign language communication. You really couldn’t video chat with a high enough quality — it would get blurry, you wouldn’t have the resolution you’d need,” he said. “(Now with 4G) it can be captured, transported and displayed in real time on another device. Fundamentally, that was transformational.”

The deaf community uses a variety of technologies with improved accessibility, said Angela Botz, president of the Illinois Association of the Deaf. Generally, these technologies can be grouped into three categories: hearing technology, alerting devices and communication supports. These encompass many video- and text-based communication systems, such as real-time captioning, email, instant and text messaging systems and a wide range of relay services that provide access to telephone networks.

All of these technological improvements are unitized to make communicating with both the deaf world and the hearing world more accessible.

Susan Weiss, an American Sign Language instructor at the University, has been deaf since birth. For her, video telecommunication and video relay service, a type of video interpreting service, have been the most influential technological changes so far. Through VRS, a deaf person can communicate to a hearing person via a live interpreter; as the deaf person signs to the interpreter through video, the interpreter translates for the hearing person by telephone and vice versa.

“That technology has just been amazing. It’s something I use everyday, it’s very beneficial,” Weiss said through an interpreter via VRS. “In the olden days, we didn’t have to do that. I actually had to physically drive to a person’s home and if I found out they weren’t home, I’d leave them a note, you know, and drive back. … Then the person comes over and misses me.”

Communication accessibility isn’t the only important aspect of these advances, Weiss explained. Technology is also helping to change the reputation of the deaf and hard of hearing to the hearing world.

“Our language is different than English, and hearing people can’t always understand it. (Now) people are realizing, ‘Wow, deaf people really can communicate,’” Weiss said. “We were very dependent on hearing people to make phone calls for us. Now deaf folks are very independent, and technology has certainly been a part of that.”

Deaf culture has also been challenged by technology, however. According to Gallaudet University, a deaf university in Washington, D.C., 13 percent of the U.S. population is deaf or hard of hearing. Of those 38 million people, 10 percent are considered to be the core component of deaf culture: people born into deaf families or are actively involved in the deaf community or both. This core group identifies themselves as deaf — not in terms of a disability but as a minority group.

So when cochlear implants — a surgically implanted electronic device that can help provide a sense of sound — were introduced in the late 20th century, they caused a lot of controversy in the deaf community.

“Almost at a fundamental value, a cochlear implant kind of says deaf is not good, so you can see how it’s kind of a challenge to a cultural value,” Dye said. “They see it as an invasion surgery for a non-life-threatening condition, because from their perspective, you can live a full, fulfilling life as a deaf person, so there’s no need for the surgery.”

Deaf people don’t always see the implant as necessarily the problem but more so as the negative attitudes toward deafness that tend to go along with the cochlear implant.

By and large, technology has served as an amazing communication tool for the deaf community while also providing some challenges to their cultural values. Economic improvements, migrations into the suburbs and better accessibility to the hearing world has caused some deaf communities to disperse, Dye said, although video telecommunication and the use of the Internet has allowed deaf people from across the country and around the world to connect.

Looking ahead, Weiss would like to see improvements in television captioning services, video quality and connection speeds, as well as an increase in ASL interpreters, specifically in University programs in Champaign. Although most of the current technological advancements used by the deaf were created by the hearing world, the deaf community might start to direct their technological tools on their own as higher numbers of the deaf enter high education.

“I think what you’ll see is rather than deaf people piggy-backing on technologies developed by the hearing world, they’re going to have their own computer scientists, their own engineers, their own entrepreneurs, who are going to develop the technologies and the tools that deaf people want, as deaf people,” Dye said.

This type of progress will continue to develop through the cultivation in deaf schools and communities found throughout the country, a network of people that are now better connected than ever before.

The Illinois Association of the Deaf, an organization that communicates through email, AIM chat and videophones, helps share deaf culture through many social events hosted in the Champaign-Urbana area through its Illini Chapter. The IAD will also have its 2013 conference in Champaign on June 20-22 to host a variety of social gatherings and workshops, including those on technology.

“Deaf advocates look forward to an even brighter future of improving communication barriers to ensure access for deaf and hard of hearing people and full participation in all aspects of life,” Botz said.

Sarah can be reached at [email protected]