Q&A: How SMS aids Deaf research and communication

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Wednesday, 9 July 2014 10:19am

Media Access Australia spoke with Erin Walsh and Meaghan Arundell from the Australian National University ahead of their presentations at the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) conference in Melbourne on how SMS is being used as a research and communication tool for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired.

The conference, being run at Swinburne University’s Hawthorn campus from 9-11 July, tackles a diverse range of issues in the media and communication space, including issues around disability and media access.

Media Access Australia: Could you provide an overview of what your presentation will touch on?

Erin Walsh and Meaghan Arundell: We have worked collaboratively on the SMS4Deaf project [a study looking into SMS as a tool for psychological research with deaf people]. Erin’s speech will focus on the research methodology, and the possibilities of utilising SMS as a method of data collection for research within deaf populations. Meaghan’s speech will focus on SMS as a means of communicating with deaf people, possible language barriers, and the use of text speak.

For people unfamiliar with the use of SMS by people who are Deaf or have a hearing impairment, could you provide some background on how SMS is used as an assistive technology?

While a great step in terms of communication across large distances, the invention of the telephone effectively excluded deaf people from the real-time connectedness that telecommunications had to offer.

This was remedied by an invention developed in the 1960s called TTY (an abbreviation for teletypewriter), a text-based communication system developed for deaf people that could be considered the conceptual predecessor of SMS.

TTY was akin to an early instant messaging system, using a typewriter-like device, and a telephone line, to transmit written messages in real-time from one TTY-capable machine to another. TTY messages can be translated and passed on in voice call or other non TTY format by relay services, though these services lacked national coverage and 24-hour services until the introduction of a government funded centralised service in 1995.

While TTY was an important tool, the need to have a TTY-capable machine at both ends of the communication, or have an available intermediary, coupled with its limited uptake in non-deaf homes and institutions, isolated its deaf users from the larger Australian community.

With the introduction of early mobile phones capable of acting as TTY terminals, TTY became more user-friendly and portable. The period of TTY-capable mobile phones was relatively short-lived due to its reliance on analogue telecommunications infrastructure.

Digital, rather than analogue, mobile telephone infrastructure (Global System for Mobile Communications, GSM) was introduced in Australia in 1993.

For a time, both digital and analogue infrastructure was left operational, allowing early mobile telephones capable of supporting bidirectional use of TTY to continue functioning. This functionality was lost when the analogue telecommunications network was completely phased out in 2000. As (unless an intermediary service is used) TTY requires a TTY-capable machine at both ends of the communication, this relegated it back to dependence on hefty desktop machines, and severely diminished its popularity.

The same infrastructure upgrade that saw the decline in TTY created the opportunity for a new text communication option—SMS (or short message service), which allows short text messages to be sent between mobile telephones. Though each message was originally constrained to 160 characters, modern services allow multiple messages to be stitched together, allowing much longer communications.

With high levels of mobile telephone ownership in the Deaf community, many Deaf people buy a mobile telephone solely for its SMS functionality, finding it the most useful aspect of their mobile phone. Aside from the benefits of SMS often cited in non-deaf research (including its availability, portability, convenience, cost-effectiveness and ease of use), SMS is uniquely useful to deaf individuals for communications typically carried out by voice call including hailing taxis, contacting roadside assistance for breakdowns, and coordinating purchases and banking.

How is the use of SMS changing over time? Are people moving more to messaging applications such as WhatsApp?

Deaf people who communicate in Auslan (Australian Sign Language) use various apps. Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Snapchat and a variety of other programs allow for communication featuring short videos, which is ideal for sign language users. However, we are not aware of any research in this field, and cannot say if there is a trend toward any of these applications.

What are some of the accessibility implications of SMS, and more recently, messaging apps?

Any communication method that relies on written English is potentially inaccessible to some people.

Many deaf people, whether they communicate in signed or spoken language, struggle with literacy.

For some deaf people, SMS is a less confronting format for communicating. This is possibly related to the informality of SMS, where grammar is less strictly scrutinised.

Text speak can also create barriers for deaf people, particularly if the text speak term is phonologically-based, that is; a representation of the sound of a word.

Are there specific things that device manufacturers, app developers and other people in the web and technology industries need to be aware of?

There are a number of apps in development to translate between spoken/written language and signed language, though none are yet available in Australia.

Many apps and programs, including Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, already allow deaf people to communicate through a mixture of text and video communication, which is great for people with low literacy, or for people who prefer to communicate visually. New apps to improve accessibility and communication are always welcome.

App developers need to be aware that just because something is provided in a written format does not necessarily mean that it is accessible to deaf people.

Also, it would be great if someone could work on improving the accuracy of automatic captions. They’re prone to errors that, while amusing to many hearing people, can be highly problematic to the deaf people who depend upon them.

Any other thoughts or comments on access issues for people with hearing impairments?

Cultural sensitivity is important!

First of all, many deaf/Deaf (the big ‘D’ represents deaf people who sign, and view deafness as part of their cultural identity), the term ‘hearing-impaired’ is unwelcome.

Secondly, notes and captions are not necessarily an adequate device for providing equal access for deaf people (although they are by no means a bad thing). As previously mentioned, many deaf people struggle with literacy, and find it difficult to follow captions. They also often fail to include other linguistic cues, such as tone of voice, which can significantly alter the meaning. Automatic captions are particularly difficult, as they’re so prone to mistakes.

When communicating with deaf people, it’s important to remember that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Some deaf people speak clearly and lip-read well, while others do not. Some deaf people use assistive devices to hear, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants, but they do not all receive the same benefits from their devices. Some deaf people know Auslan, or other signed languages, while others do not. Some have excellent literacy skills, while others struggle with written language. Some deaf people prefer to speak, some prefer to sign, and some prefer to write notes.

When communicating with any deaf person, it’s important to find out their preferred method of communication, and try to work with what works best for them.

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