Why the Signing Gloves Hype Needs to Stop

A white glove in a shape of a booing hand.

There has been a hype around about “signing gloves” that were “invented” by two University of Washington students.

First of all, those students are NOT “inventors”. The idea of signing gloves has been proposed by many others before them – for example:

Those people don’t know sign language or understand that it’s not just simple gestures. Auto translations between spoken languages and auto speech recognition are bad enough, that “invention” does more harm than good. Even some of signs shown by those guys are not correct.

Also, majority of deaf and hard of hearing people don’t know sign language to benefit from that invention. They use spoken language and rely on quality hearing devices, quality human made captioning, and other communication options than just sign language.

Many deaf people who use sign language can also read and write. Paper and pen or typing on a device has been a common solution for them for many years if they have a hard time lipreading those who don’t sign. Even poorly written English by some of signers is still much better than text produced by those “smart” gloves.

Also, all those people who promote “smart” gloves DON’T show any real time video demos of how it works – which also means that it’s just an idea of a product that doesn’t work.

Secondly – none of those “inventors” of “smart” gloves asked the native Deaf signers for feedback before promoting their product and assuming that their “invention” can help them. It shows a patronizing attitude towards signing Deaf community – first by assuming none of them can communicate via writing and second by assuming all of them would benefit from their “inventions”.

Thirdly – why not more people learn sign language? All you need is your hands. The American Sign Language classes are among the most popular foreign language classes in high schools and universities. If you want to communicate with a deaf person who signs, you can try to use paper/pen or typing on device (that everyone is using) and also consider learning sign language. Just like you would learn any foreign language to communicate with a foreigner. No gloves are needed!

Last, but not least – please DO NOT make assumptions about deaf and hard of hearing people. We know what works best for us. Also, don’t assume that we are all same in terms of hearing and communication abilities and preferences. Please ask us!

The “inventors” are also insulting deaf people by calling them “deaf and mute” – the word that is no longer used now – much less in USA for the reasons explained by NAD. It again shows how they failed to do research and interview with native signers.

I also wanted to share links to blog posts of 2 other deaf people (who are also professionally trained linguistics) about the signing gloves who share the same sentiments:

I’m including some excerpts from those articles, but please take time to read the full articles.

Angus explains the reasons why sign-to-speech is not going to be practical any time soon:

  • Sign languages are languages.
  • We cannot do this for spoken language.
  • It’s complicated.
  • Speech to text is hard.
  • There is no text.
  • Sign recognition is hard.
  • Machine translation is hard.
  • Sign to spoken translation is really hard.
  • Sign synthesis is hard.
  • What is this for, anyway?

She ended the article by saying: “So I’m asking all you computer scientists out there who don’t know anything about sign languages, especially anyone who might be in a position to fund something like this or give out one of these gee-whiz awards: Just stop. Take a minute. Step back from the tech-bling. Unplug your messiah complex. Realize that you might not be the best person to decide whether or not this is a good idea. Ask a linguist. And please, ask a Deaf person!”

Katie explains why “the gloves are nothing more than a fun party trick and have no practical purpose”:

  • Translation/interpretation is NOT simple.
  • “Sign language” is a lot more than just fingerspelling.
  • ASL is a complex language.
  • ASL uses both hands: sometimes together, sometimes independently.
  • ASL uses facial expressions.

She asks the most important question – “Do Deaf people even want those gloves?” – and also emphasizes: “We need to check our hearing privilege, and resist the “savior” temptation. Is the lack of signing gloves actually a problem in the Deaf community? If so, why not involve those in the community, the targeted audience, in the creation process? Don’t you think they would have valuable feedback? If it is not a problem … let’s stop trying to fix something that ain’t broken. The temptation to be a savior, to rescue the under-privileged, to “bring a voice to the voiceless” is strong. While that urge comes from a noble place, it is a terrible reason to impose burdensome, bulky technology on those who don’t want it.

Katie also explains that gloves often are advertised with phrases like: “A glove that helps people with hearing disabilities” or “Giving a voice to the voiceless”. Those phrases are offensive and patronizing because: “I won’t even talk about how they don’t, in fact, only help those with hearing disabilities (they mainly help hearing people who DON’T UNDERSTAND ASL!) and that Deaf people ALREADY HAVE A VOICE (both literally and metaphorically).”

You can help deaf and hard of hearing people more by:

  • learning to become a live captioner (there’s a high demand for those services as there are only 400 certified live captioners in USA which is not enough for 50 million of deaf and hard of hearing people),
  • providing quality captioning for videos and quality transcripts for audio and podcasts,
  • learning sign language and cued speech for those who use it,
  • learning how to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people who rely on listening and lipreading, and
  • trying to better understand various communication needs and abilities of people with various degrees of deafness.

Update: I recently came across yet another great article by Alex Lu, another deaf professional – Deaf People Don’t Need New Communication Tools—Everyone Else Does – it also needs to be read in full. Here are some excerpts from his article:

“Hearing friends, I have one question: Why does everything in our society have to cater to you?”

“Deaf people are viewed as a liability in terms of communication, when in reality, we are the experts.”

“Deaf people should not have to wear gloves to make their words palatable to hearing people.”

“Deaf people should not have to wear gloves to make their words and presentation palatable to hearing people. You already have all the tools you need to communicate with us, if you would only learn how to use them. It is time that hearing people respect Deaf people for who they are, instead of forcing us to be empty caricatures of hearing standards.”

It’s true. We are constantly fighting for access to aural information via quality human made captioning, quality human sign language interpreters, quality cued speech transliterators, quality hearing devices, and so on. Those are the SERVICES that WE NEED but are often DENIED. Communication barriers can be best removed by adding a HUMAN touch, not by gloves or other technologies.