Tech too costly for deaf community

20:39, Jul 16 2012
Kat Hickson uses a phone to text. Her life would be easier if she could afford a smartphone with apps for communication.
HEARING IMPAIRED: Kat Hickson uses a phone to text. Her life would be easier if she could afford a smartphone with apps for communication.

Great technology exists to help the hearing impaired, but many Kiwis can't afford it.

Rapid advances in communication technology are passing the New Zealand deaf community by, because of low incomes and lack of government funding.

The development of smartphones in particular have seen foreign deaf communities equipped with versatile and practical tools for everyday life.

For example the iPhone app, Tap Tap app, converts the phone into a listening device. A deaf person can be alerted to significant sounds - babies crying, cars honking, doorbells ringing - by vibrations and flashing lights.

A portable sign language translator developed in Britain allows a deaf person to communicate with hearing people by turning their signs into spoken words.

Christchurch's Kat Hickson, 18, is deaf and would love a smartphone to help her interact with the community but she is unable to find work and is getting by on welfare.


"A smartphone would help deaf people a lot with communication," she said through an interpreter. "But I can't afford it. There's no money for those kind of luxuries."

Deaf Aotearoa community relations officer James Pole said government funding for deaf technology in New Zealand was too low and sometimes misdirected.

Many deaf people would not benefit from new technology as they could not afford smartphones. Most remained on welfare or in low-paid jobs.

He said the education system often failed deaf people, leaving them poorly qualified and unable to complete tertiary education.

Even if they managed to get a degree, many employers would not hire a deaf person and "put them in the too hard basket".

"Most deaf people are on low incomes," he said. "Some people in higher-paid jobs may be using smartphones but most are not."

Hickson has been looking for a job, but in a tight market, deaf people were often at the bottom of the pile for employers.

"I don't like being on the benefit," she said. "I want to work."

She finished high school at Hagley College and was taking a year off before studying art.

"High school was a lot easier for us because we had resources from Van Asch (Deaf Education Centre), but university and polytech are harder. We need professional interpreters, note takers and funding. It's all very expensive."

Christchurch's Laura Watson, 21, worked as a dishwasher in Australia before communication problems with her boss saw her lose her job.

"It was hard communicating with my boss," she said. "He wouldn't accept me, and it was a real barrier. I felt discriminated against and really uncomfortable in that environment."

Apps which convert signs into verbal language through a smartphone could have helped her express herself without the need for a sign language interpreter.

She said moving into new schools or communities was difficult because people didn't understand her, or thought she was too difficult to deal with.

"If I had a friend doing an activity or something, obviously I would want to do it. But some people would say I shouldn't be there."

Both women agreed deaf children could bond with hearing children over technology, because it was a common language, and mostly visual.

Canterbury University communication disorders lecturer Dean Sutherland said technology often broke down barriers for young people.

Deaf youth could interact with their peers via video-calling and find things in common over the latest Angry Birds game, for example.

"Any technology which helps deaf people to interact with their community and supports them communicating with others, is a good thing," Sutherland said.

He and Pole both supported the Government funding smartphones for deaf people who couldn't afford them.

The Government funded some equipment such as baby monitors and relay calling systems. The relay system relies on the deaf caller using an intermediary to voice their written conversation for a hearing person, then convert the verbal response back into print to keep the conversation going.

Pole said the service was invaluable but was frustratingly slow and could be improved.

A free wi-fi-based video-calling system had been Government funded in New Zealand and Australia, but it was limited to those who had video-capable phones.

Video calling was especially helpful for deaf people who could lip read, he said.

While many deaf people were able to use internet telephony service Skype, the speed of their connection could be too slow. This made unintelligible the sort of fast hand movements common to sign language.

Smartphones can use the mobile network for internet access which was often faster and clearer, and also transportable.

"Deaf people would definitely be keen to tackle new technology," he said.

Most deaf technology was being developed in America but Pole was confident there would be progress in the New Zealand market.

"I guess we will wait and see, learn from the Americans," he said.

One significant milestone for New Zealand Sign Language was the compilation of a NZSL dictionary app for iPhone and Android. Free, it includes 4000 diagrams for signs and phrases.

The Press