For me, the decision to attend graduate school was not a difficult one. The university where I had gotten my Bachelor’s degree had a Master’s program that had my name written all over it. Rehabilitation Counseling. The field of study was similar to social work, and the population I would be trained to work with was specifically people with disabilities. Perfect.

Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by disability. Not only because I am affected by one personally, although that was a factor, I am sure. But also, I have always been intrigued by things like how physical disability affects emotional health and how disability can impact a family in various ways. So this degree? It was right up my alley.

From the moment I started my Master’ program, it was clear to me that it would be good for me  to get familiar with many different disabilities. I spent a semester working as a reader for people who were blind. While I did that, I learned the importance of not moving things around in a room and remembering to direct people, in detail, when they needed assistance getting where they needed to go.

My sign language class was a little more challenging. The first problem was that, because I need both hands to push my wheelchair, I could not move across a room and have a conversation at the same time. Some other students in the class suggested that I “sign” using only one hand, and just go in circles for the length of the interaction. I never tried it, but it would have been fun! 🙂

The second problem was a bit more serious. Because of my cerebral palsy, my finger dexterity is somewhat limited, and I had trouble positioning my hands into the various shapes required to make myself understood in sign language. In fact, the professor told me that some of the signs I was attempting to make looked very similar to other signs, and someone who was deaf might have trouble understanding what I was trying to communicate. I was heartbroken. Although I never took another sign language class, my experience in graduate school has always made me wonder how I could effectively communicate with someone who couldn’t hear me speak.

Last week, I saw the following video on Facebook. Pardon the pun, but I was speechless. Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi are sophomores at the University of Washington. They invented what they call Sign Aloud, a pair of gloves with sensors inside. When the gloves are worn by a person using sign language, the sensors “read” the shape and position of their hands and, through a computer, translate the sign into spoken word. As the video says “This invention could potentially completely bridge the communication gap between the 70 million people worldwide who are deaf or hard of hearing and the rest of the seven billion people on the planet.”

See the video here:

I believe that one of the criteria for true inclusion is that the person with a disability should not have to do something radically different than others in order to fully participate in whatever event is going on.  Although gardens that have an accessible section are a nice idea, or there might be a videotape that describes and lets me see what something I can’t access looks like, those things are not true inclusion in my opinion.

Sign Aloud, on the other hand, simply encourages people who are deaf or hard of hearing to wear a special pair of gloves, so they might be able to communicate with more people in the world around them.  Most people wear gloves in the winter, and I personally wear gloves when I am pushing my wheelchair for fitness, in order to avoid getting blisters.  I don’t think many people in society would think that wearing a pair of gloves is a big deal at all.

I don’t claim to speak for people who are deaf.  But from where I sit, the potential for more doors to open up for people who use sign because of this invention could be exponential.  There could be more job interviews or access to hobbies.  These gloves may give people who use sign the confidence to approach people they would not have otherwise.  All of that is just beyond cool.

When I was in graduate school I tried to learn sign language in an attempt to communicate with people who were deaf and hard of hearing.  My results were clumsy and awkward, to say the least.  Although lip reading would still be required on the part of the person who is deaf in order for the two of us to communicate well, I think Sign Aloud is a much better invention than me attempting to use one sign and having what I am actually signing be interpreted as something else entirely.  Yes, given my personal experience, I think Sign Aloud is a much better way to go.

Hands down!

**It is becoming apparent that I need to clarify something about this post, based on some feedback I have gotten about it.  I wrote this piece a few days after I had seen the video about this invention.  Based solely on my experience and struggle when I attempted to learn sign language, I thought these gloves were a good thing because they might create an opportunity for some people who sign to make their needs known to a wider audience, who don’t use sign language.  I can see that they have limitations.  They don’t allow the person who being signed to the ability to respond.  And technology is not without its flaws.  It was not my intention to be insensitive or offensive to the deaf and hard of hearing community.  I sincerely apologize for the way this post might have come across to some.