Speech Industry Sets a Precedent for the Deaf-Blind Community

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January 24 and 25 saw one of the most mind-bending conferences that has ever been streamed online: the world's first online International DeafBlind Conference. Many of the most recognized leaders of the deaf-blind community presented on a variety of subjects that attracted hundreds of attendees from around the world to this unprecedented Web experience.

There were several impressive elements to this conference. First was the fact that a conference focusing on deaf-blind-related content was delivered solely online. The second was that most of the presenters at the two-day conference were themselves deaf-blind (defined as having varying degrees of vision and hearing). The third was that many of the audience members from across the United States and 13 other countries represented the breadth of the deaf-blind community, meaning they (a) could not see the presentations on camera, (b) could not hear what the presenter was saying, or (c) could neither see nor hear. There was a spectrum in between as well.

Conference organizer Susanne Morgan Morrow, owner of DB-TIP (Deaf-Blind Training, Interpreting and Professional Development; www.deafblindtip.com), created what could be called one of the most innovative approaches to conferencing ever viewed on the Web. For every deaf-blind presenter who appeared on camera, there was an American Sign Language interpreter in a window, plus often a personal verbal (speaking) interpreter in another window. Considering that the presenters were in six different locations, the interpreters in other cities, and the subtitles created in yet another city, the Webinar itself was a feat of coordination.

In addition to the interpretation, the entire conference was automatically subtitled in 78 languages through speech technology to enable it to be read by the deaf in all languages. Text-to-speech turned the subtitles into audio for the blind in other countries. And for the first time in history, the conference subtitles could be read in real time in braille in every major language by people who were deaf-blind.

While deaf-blind presenters gave presentations using sign language, the voices of interpreters were poured into Dragon (by Nuance.com), snatched from Dragon by a text field on the Web; sent for translation to Microsoft, Google, Yandex, and Baidu; then delivered to global viewers as subtitles. When Dragon desktop was not available on the interpreter's computer, Nuance's cloud version, NDEV, processed voice transcription. For blind attendees, attractive text-to-speech from ReadSpeaker was emitted into their headphones or computer speakers in their native language.

For years, the speech industry has been working magic for the deaf and the blind, increasing in accuracy and utility. Technology is working to replace what the human ear and eye have lost—in the form of supportive aids that improve even the smallest hint of vision or hearing, that informs and warns with text-to-speech, and that turns voice to text for auditory impairment. To this is added new technologies of prosthetic replacements and gene therapy, all of which coordinate to morph this amazing, alternate world that so few of us know into a new future of restored and/or compensated senses.

Morgan Morrow, who is also the director of the federal-grant-funded New York Deaf-Blind Collaborative for children and young adults who are deaf-blind, elaborates: "Today's technologies finally make it possible for the people across communities and of different languages to come together across the miles, both nationally and globally, on one platform. At the same time, these new technologies slash costs to a fraction, opening new paths to communication with and for people who are deaf, blind, or deaf-blind."

As the world of speech collides with the world of language, each advancement in speech means that someone somewhere will be able to understand, hear, follow, and enjoy a new, innovative experience in communication. 

Sue Ellen Reager is CEO of @International Services, a company specializing in translation and localization for technology and marketing. She is also president of Translate Your World, developers of software for across-language speech communication.

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