Why I oppose sign language gloves

A few days ago, I was tagged by my deaf friends and my Facebook feeds have been bombarded by this “breakthrough” invention of five electrical engineering students of Camarines Sur Polytechnic Colleges. They invented gloves that can “convert the Filipino Sign Language into audible words.” Major Philippine media news and print outlets picked up the students’ Facebook post and made news about it here, here, and here. This digital media outlet even headlined it as, “Amazing is an understatement”.

For clearer context, here is the news video.

Although I doubt that this is considered as a “breakthrough” because other countries have already invented this like the one made by UCLA, The University of Washington, and a group of Ukrainian students, I greatly laud the efforts they made and am so proud of them simply because they are Filipinos!

However, I am not amazed, not even impressed.

I have been one of the IT consultants of the National Council on Disability Affairs and the then National Computer Center now the Department of Information and Communications Technology on matters related to assistive technologies for Persons With Disabilities since 2007. I have also conducted more than 25 seminars, workshops, and training related to accessible web technologies to the government and private sector as president of the Philippine Web Accessibility Group. I even made a country presentation in India for ASEAN highlighting the progress we made in assistive technologies many years ago. So I humbly consider myself as an expert in this field.

I totally get why this is an amazing concept. To be able to slip on gloves that provide you the communication between deaf and hearing is remarkable. It’s awesome that technology has gotten to where it’s at today. You may believe it’s pretty cool if you don’t know much about being deaf or hard of hearing or what’s in its community.

In this case, the proponents of this technology must first resolve these important accessibility and usability issues:

1. Can it solve the communication problem of the deaf user?

This device is a one-way street. Suppose, a deaf person wears this and “talks” to his hearing receiver.  Since he cannot hear, how can the deaf know that what he “talked” was right? Assuming that the words it says were right, the person he is talking to now understands what the deaf is saying. Then what? Can the receiver respond by talking or by signing too? Since the hearing person does not know sign language, how can he talk back?

The gloves also do not respond to sign language. It responds only to words that were assigned to gestures.

2. Is it comfortable for the user?

Wearing gloves no matter how useful they are, is not comfortable. Can you sign and eat at the same time while wearing it? Can you do other things or move around while wearing it? Is it safe? Better yet, are you happy wearing those silly gloves?

Remember the failure of Google Glass in matters of safety and privacy issues?

google glass as worn by a model
Google Glass

3. Were the users consulted?

In the news interview, Francis Anthony De Guzman, the Team Leader was asked about the purpose of designing the gloves. He replied that their invention will be “for personal use of the deaf community”. Really? Did they make at least an initiative of interviewing members of the deaf community if they will use it? Will it be used by those whom it is intended to? If so, what are their responses?

There is a thriving group of mostly Filipino Deaf on Facebook. The private “Invite-only” group has nearly 8,500 members, the biggest among the deaf community in the Philippines. According to their About Page, the Filipino Deaf vloggers: Feed, Awareness and Openness Group (FDVFAO) is composed of people “supporting Filipino Deaf community in raising awareness and openness such as accessibility information, Deaf access, Deaf rights, Deaf jobs, Deaf education and many more. Deaf people become a better individual and become an inspiration to our community as well to strive for excellence.” One of its admin, Aldrin Gabriel, my former deaf student, personally invited me to join.

After learning about this invention and went viral within the community, the majority of the deaf members disagree with this. Here are some of their sentiments.

No need technology hand for sign language. Must communicate with Deaf and hearing (face to face) even good learning how it communicate also grammar.

 yeah, it’s just test. If propose to PFD [Philippine Federation of the Deaf], not approve by PFD.
Bye gloves technology!

Hearing no respect deaf. Why hearing technology hand sign language. Tsk.

Best is natural than gloves so just pray that community Deaf stronger disagree away the gloves sign language technology

They even reposted this cute video of a deaf child actress Shaylee Mansfield wearing the glove to express their disagreement:

4. Can it accurately convey the message of the user?

According to the inventors, this gadget uses “Filipino Sign Language”. Do they understand the complexity of a language, more so a “sign language”?

Sign language is a visual language. It uses three communication tools to express concepts: the two hands, the upper body, and the face. Also, every sign you do has specific locations, directions, and movements. When you speak, you only use your tongue to convey a concept. Therefore, gloves alone cannot translate sign language because you need the face and the locations of where the signs are going next to your body. It is too complex. Sign language is a three-dimensional language and is not a written language. It cannot be programmed into a pair of gloves.

Here is another video blog post of JP Batadlan, another famous young deaf vlogger with nearly 7,000 Facebook followers which clearly expresses the sentiments of nearly all the Filipino deaf community.

Notice that these four questions have a common context, the “user“. You cannot simply say that this gadget or that medicine or this technology is useful to the user without first including the user in the loop. You cannot dictate to the user what is useful for them and what is not. Otherwise, they won’t use it, and it would eventually become useless.

Still, many people who have barely minimum knowledge about the needs of the deaf community argued that this will be of great help to them. One even defended it by saying,

You are missing the point… this invention is not meant to insult or undermine the deaf. This will make it easier for people who don’t know sign language to understand them and it will even make it easier to teach sign language to others. It will be easier to communicate with the deaf.

Upon careful analysis of this defender’s argument, he is the one entirely missing the point. He is only after the convenience of those who “don’t know sign language” and NOT the people who actually use the language. So he affirms that this gadget is basically designed with the hearing people in mind and not the deaf person.

Is there a better way of communicating with the deaf? Yes! LEARN SIGN LANGUAGE!

I agree with the majority of the Filipino Deaf community’s sentiments that using sign language gloves is not the solution to their communication concern. Still, a salute is in order. So, congratulations to the Team of Francis Anthony De Guzman!!!

I leave this blog post with a tweet made by Jon Urquhart, a Child of a Deaf Adult (CODA), which altogether sums it all. Cheers!


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