Deaf geographies, and other worlds.
There’s been a lot of chat in the Deaf-related press in the last couple of days about the announcement that an app is going to be developed that will allow a simple camera-equipped smart phone to ‘translate sign language into text’.
You can find one of the many reports at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9134827/Sign-language-program-converts-hand-movements-into-text.html
Lots of the discussion about the article is understandably skeptical, with some wondering whether this is another one of those projects where a hearing group of researchers think they have discovered something that is going to ‘save’ the Deaf community, but have actually only found a way to capture very slow finger spelling that would be quicker to write out with a pencil.
Some of this appears to be driven by a sentiment of “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that” and the consequent “Well, poo to you if you have managed to solve the problem” that you might expect.
I wonder if some of the latter is emerging from an acknowledgment that we are now reaching the point where more powerful computing probably will let us actually approach the kind of recognition app that is being discussed.
Which raises another interesting question. When (not if) we actually get an app, or a solution that really works, what are interpreters going to do?
At the moment, interpreters occupy a somewhat problematic space… they providing a service that is crucial to both the Deaf community and the hearing world, but it’s a service that an app like this would begin to make unnecessary – and one that could potentially outlive its utility even within our present generation.
At that point, do interpreters pack up and find something else to do? Or do they do what those employed around the Deaf community (with far less laudable morals than today’s interpreters) have sometimes done and carry on making a case for their involvement even if it’s no longer valid?
Let me be clear – I’ve not got a downer on interpreters. I used to be one – and I acknowledge that they are all different, work differently and are differently appreciated by the Deaf community. Most, if not all, have a very clear understanding of their relationship with the Deaf community, aware of the drivers of empowerment and need, and wrestle with the difficulties of reconciling those.
So… to repeat – I’m not targeting interpreters.
But I am interested in what happens when people (with all of their hopes and dreams, responsibilities and priorities, politics and pressures) find themselves challenged by a piece of technology that is utterly, and determinedly uninterested in the impact that it has.
Historically – those earning money by providing a service to the Deaf community haven’t always behaved very honorably when presented with the possibility of losing their employment.
One of my students last year wrote an essay which wondered whether the dis-empowering aspects of Oralism (self-interest, wages, paternalism etc.) are still present in today’s Deaf services… and whether, if prodded in the right direction, they could lead to the emergence of some form of neo-Oralism where ‘need’ is created to serve those who stand to benefit.
I’m not saying that it’s going to happen, but perhaps it’s something that bears thinking about before it actually becomes an issue?