Should the Development of a Technology-Based on a Sign Language Be Constituted As Cultural Appropriation?

It has been argued that Sign-Language technology gloves are not breaking down communication barriers; they are instead offending those who are hard of hearing.

Back in 2017, a letter was written by Lance Forshay, who directs the American Sign Language (ASL) program at UW and Kristi Winter and Emily Bender who work in his department. It was triggered by Darren Lipomi’s invention, a translating glove. The letter stated many things wrong with the glove, including how the development of a technology-based on a sign language constituted cultural appropriation. That same year writer Michael Errad wrote a thought-provoking article that placed Sign-Language Gloves in the same category as fantasy tech gadgets, jet packs and hoverboards.

The theatlantic.com writer’s piece titled, ‘Why Sign-Language Gloves Don’t Help Deaf People’ was brought to my attention by fashion tech expert and FashNerd contributor Ricardo O’Nascimento. I was eager to read it because FashNerd.com has written a lot of positive pieces on the subject of assistive technology, especially on communication devices. It is an area that holds our interest and therefore, our support. This is why Erard’s article got my attention.

A Future Promised by Science Fiction

There are 360 million people in the world who are deaf or hard of hearing. So it is no wonder that it is a problem that various innovators are eager to solve. The thing is the eagerness can be interpreted as the beginnings of a hero complex. An observation that recently led me to look at the whole sign language glove from a different perspective. True, the idea of giving the non-verbal community a device that they can use to communicate with the hearing world sounds like a wonderful concept on paper, but does it also come across quite condescending? 

Before reading Erard’s article my take was that these devices open up the world to those who are at a disadvantage due to having a hearing impediment. This is why I got excited whenever I heard that a startup or an inventor had come up with a prototype that might solve the problem. Erard explains things a little differently. In his article, he started by pointing out that the sign-language glove, “has had a rather dismal history” and that for the deaf community, and linguists, “the sign-language glove is rooted in the preoccupations of the hearing world, not the needs of Deaf signers”.

“The sign-language glove is rooted in the preoccupations of the hearing world, not the needs of Deaf signers”.

Earlier this year we wrote about Kenyan engineer and innovator Roy Allela. He hoped to solve the problem of communication with his sign-language-to-speech-translation glove, designed to provide help so the wearer can communicate. It is capable of translating signed hand movements into audible speech via Bluetooth and a smartphone app. We also revisited BrightSign, a startup that hopes to give voice to the 70 million sign language users globally. Founded by Saudi designer Hadeel Ayoub, BrightSign who has come up with a smart glove complete with a companion app that tracks hand motions to produce speech from sign language that could be the solution for non-verbal individuals.

New Smart Glove Turns Sign Language Into Text and Speech
A Smart Glove Turns Sign Language Into Text and Speech

Coming back to Erard’s article, I started to see why some people might regard the sign language glove as not solving a problem but instead being part of it. For the hearing “do gooders”, this is a message that seems to be lost on them. Instead, we are busy giving companies like Microsoft a pat on the back for thinking about this and for being so considerate. That being said I can understand why the tech giant’s 2017 announcement on their plans to produce a technology that will enable deaf individuals to experience some of the benefits of hearing was seen by many as being sensitive to the needs of others. But now 2019, I ask you was it really? Are the signers truly being taken into account when companies are designing a glove meant for them?

Technologies Based on an Element of Deaf Culture

Taking it back to the 80s, Erard explained how the first smart glove, intended to make interactions between deaf and non-deaf people easier, was introduced in 1988. Costing around $3,500, the “talking glove,” was created by Stanford University researchers James Kramer and Larry Leifer. Fast forward to 2001, and the buzz around Ryan Patterson’s “translating glove.” The invention won him the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and a $100,000 scholarship, before being discredited as “not being able to translate anything beyond individual letters”, in 2002 by the public-affairs office of the National Institute on Deafness.

Hadeel Ayoub
BrightSign Smart Glove

Halfway through reading Erard’s piece, I had to admit that he had put forward some convincing evidence supported be the fact that although many have tried (and are still trying) no one has actually taken a product to market. To my knowledge, this is true. There have been some incredible prototypes that have been put together with hopes and dreams, but Erard points out that products like Jose Hernandez-Rebollar AcceleGlove, which alleges to “translate” sign language into written and spoken forms, are yet to prove their worth. The writer backed his reasoning by citing linguists Emily Bender and Katrina Faust who believe that sign-language translation gloves invented so far seem to misconstrue the nature of ASL.

As I continued to read his article, one of the points that stood out for me was when Erard stated: “Why should the deaf person expend the effort to accommodate to the standards of communication of the hearing person?” I cringed when I read this. It was true. The gloves are, in a twisted way, being created to serve hearing people.

Quoting Rachel Kolb, a Rhodes Scholar and PhD student at Emory University who has been deaf from birth: “The concept of the gloves is to render ASL intelligible to hearing people who don’t know how to sign, but this misses an utterly overlooks so many of the communication difficulties and frustrations that Deaf people can already face.”

“People have no knowledge of the culture of Deaf people and how signed language has been exploited and oppressed over history.”

Kolb point takes the shine away from some of the inventions that I was in awe off. I am now starting to see the sign-language glove concept with different eyes. Admittingly, as a non-signer, I don’t know much about sign language, and that is probably why I see these inventions as a way forward for those who are hard of hearing or don’t hear at all. I find myself applauding the engineer’s approach to problem-solving. But are deaf people a problem to solve? Erard supports Kolb’s point with a quote from Forshay, “People have no knowledge of the culture of Deaf people and how signed language has been exploited and oppressed over history.”

ALSO READ: Sign-IO, Breaking The Language Barrier Between Those Who Are Deaf and Those Who Aren’t​

Erard’s article made some excellent points, but I do still believe that inventors are genuinely using technology as a tool to solve a problem. The sign language glove is being created not to offend but to help break down communication barriers. I think the problem is the lack of sensitivity and maybe even an unintended lack of empathy. If you are going to develop a product for a group of people that you can only relate too as an outsider, then you need to be able to put the user at the forefront of your design thinking.

Erard ended his article quoting Kolb, “technology could create ways to encourage hearing people use ASL and become multimodal as well as multilingual”. It is a quote that sparked a conversation between myself, O’Nascimento, and fashion tech OG Anina Net. On Erard’s article, Anina concluded: “I think a sign language glove is for people who can’t do sign language….not for the person who can,” to which Ricardo replied, “Indeed. That makes more sense. I guess this is easily solved with AR. you wear a glass that interprets the signs for you. Actually, I am thinking now that so many wearables will get prematurely obsolete when AR become vastly available.” I think in the end Erard’s article achieved what it set out to do. It started a much-needed conversation about who these helpful devices are really for.

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Muchaneta Kapfunde

Founding editor-in-chief at FashNerd.com
Founding editor-in-chief & WearableTechStylist of FashNerd.com, Muchaneta has worked in the fashion industry for over 14 years. She is currently one of the leading influencers speaking and writing about the merger of fashion with technology and wearable technology and a regular contributor to digital news sites like Wareable.
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