All of these may seem like great ideas, yet most are still only concepts or prototypes – which begs the question: why have so few innovations for deaf people actually made it to market?
“There are many terrific concepts that exist, but the cost of going through R&D and actually bringing a product to market is more expensive than the return that a specialised product can offer,” says Anthony Mowl, National Marketing Director for Communication Service for the Deaf, (CSD), a US-based organisation that innovates products and services for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
The biggest obstacle to developing niche technologies for deaf people, he says, is simply a case of supply and demand. According to the World Health Organization, just over 5% of the world’s population – around 360 million people – suffer from disabling hearing loss, but the majority of these people live in low- and middle-income countries. As a consequence, most “assistive” devices like hearing aids end up being prohibitively expensive. The average retail price for a hearing aid ranges from $3,000 to $6,000.
That’s no small change, especially for a community that often faces far fewer employment prospects than the general population. While accurate numbers are hard to find, in the US and UK unemployment or underemployment rates for deaf people is at least double, if not far greater, than the general population.
Through the looking glass
The answer to cheaper innovations may actually be resting in our pockets. Instead of investing in costly assistive products, companies are now starting to adapt everyday devices we carry around into tools to help deaf and hard-of-hearing people, says Fiddian.
Take, for example, the Internet, email, and texting. The growth of these text-heavy communication mediums has reduced the awkward or difficult need for deaf people to rely on a phone call to make a reservation or have a conversation. “Instead of buying an assistive device,” says Fiddian, “you’re able to buy a device that has assistive software within them to help you.”
Mowl’s organisation, CSD, is one of many trying to tap into existing devices. They offer Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) for instance, through the use of tablets and computers, and are working on currently launching something called Vineya – a network of interpreters that can be scheduled and billed on-demand outside through this service. Simpler services, such as iPhone apps like ClearCaptions (which is free for those with hearing loss, according to the company), adds instant captions to phone calls made on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.
But the most promising innovation may soon be on the horizon: Google Glass. The camera and display built into spectacle frames, which projects a colour-image display with a live stream of information may only be in the hands of early adopters now. But if this was coupled with Google’s existing real-time speech recognition and captioning software used on YouTube, for instance, Google Glass could actually enable live subtitling of real-time conversations, allowing deaf people to have a near fluid conversation while maintaining eye contact.
The impact of such instant, wearable technology would be enormous for the deaf community, says Mowl. Yet, the reason Google has been able to invest so heavily in a service that could benefit the deaf community, Mowl claims, is primarily because their captioning software has made videos searchable, which drives advertising revenue.
Regardless, the more technology seeps into our everyday lives and interactions, the more seamless it is becoming for the deaf community to interact and live normal lives. While assistive technologies for the deaf will always be needed, it’s likely the inclusive ones will break down the biggest barriers, and more importantly, at the most accessible prices.
On the relatively simpler end of the wearable technology spectrum, the team behind VibroHear says it plans to sell its bracelets for 500 Qatari Riyals, or around $137 each. That would make it one of the cheapest assistive innovations for deaf people on the market. Time will tell if this little bracelet can succeed where others have so far failed.