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SignApp: a smartphone App for interactive sign language - voice communication between Deaf and hearing persons in Ethiopia

ECDD to create a phone App to enable real-time communication between Deaf persons using Ethiopian sign language and persons speaking Amharic

Photo of ECDD
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What problem does your idea solve?

Communication is the biggest challenge facing Deaf persons - at home, in school, when shopping, when using public transport, at work, with hearing friends, when seeking medical help, or for simple communication with anyone. Although Ethiopian Sign Language (EthSL) is used by Deaf persons, very few Ethiopians know sign language and there are very few trained sign language interpreters. A smartphone App to facilitate interactive EthSL and spoken Amharic between two or more persons is proposed.

Explain your idea

Over one million Ethiopians have smartphones, with the number rapidly increasing. By downloading the SignApp, hearing persons and Deaf persons will be able to communicate in real-time. When meeting a Deaf person, a hearing person speaks in Amharic and the SignApp converts speech into Eth Sign Language signs on the smartphone screen. The Deaf person can reply by signing to the phone screen which converts the signs into Amharic voice.

Who benefits?

Everyone. Deaf children, youth and adults will be able to communicate with hearing peers - family members, friends, neighbors, classmates, work colleagues, others including Blind persons who are not able to communicate with Deaf persons. Hearing persons will be able to communicate, even confidentially, with Deaf persons without aid of an interpreter - SignApp is the interpreter! Most youth/adults who are Deaf have smartphones for ease of communication via text messaging - and will use SignApp.

How is your idea unique?

In Asia Microsoft is developing a similar App relying on the use of computers, but more advanced. What ECDD proposes is uniquely for Ethiopia, using available smartphones, existing voice recognition and 3-D image software, and existing Amharic and EthSL dictionaries. The SignApp prototype will be based on a limited number (perhaps 1,000) most common words and signs. ECDD is uniquely placed to support the technical development of the App due to its close working relationships with Addis Ababa University Sign Language and Deaf Culture Dept. and the Ethiopian National Association of the Deaf, and ECDD has Deaf persons and SL interpreters among its members and staff. There are also several private software developer firms in Ethiopia for ECDD to partner with in the development of the SignApp prototype, provided advanced technical support was made available from outside Ethiopia.

Tell us more about you

The Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD) is a 10-year old Ethiopian "Residents Charity" presently engaged in 8 donor-funded projects promoting, facilitating and building organizational capacity for disability inclusive mainstream health, education and livelihood services and opportunities in 6 of 9 Regions of Ethiopia. The ECDD Association has 60 members and a staff of 30, the majority persons with disabilities or family members, including 4 Association members who are Deaf.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

What amount of data storage on a typical smartphone will be required to accommodate both the operating system programs (voice output, visual recognition software) and the number of individual Amharic words linked to EthSL signs? Are smartphone cameras able to use a 3-D motion visual recognition program, required for accurate "reading" of a series of individual signs? Can real-time conversion/conversation be achieved without unacceptable delays? Besides Deaf persons, who else might download and use SignApp? What would be the costs of fully developing and testing a SignApp prototype?

Where will your idea be implemented?

  • Ethiopia

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

Expertise in Sector

  • I've worked in a sector related to my idea for more than a year.

Organizational Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Idea Maturity

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it.

38 comments

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Comment
Spam
Photo of Uchenna Okafor
Team

Since basic education and ownership of smart mobile device are requirements for the success of this idea, model for expanding the school enrollment of the deaf plus providing devices for them should also be incorporated into the design. Besides, there is need to encourage other members of the society through orientation to accept this disabled group and also adopt the use of this App meant to improve their livelihood. Hey! If the prevailing stigma trailing disability in developing countries is not dealt with, bridging this gap may not be very effective.

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Photo of Nancy Wagi
Team

@ECDD--Leveraging on technology to remove communication barriers is ground breaking!Kudos!!

Spam
Photo of Nancy Wagi
Team

happy to connect you with this other two Deaf Inclusion challenges and see if there is opportunity to test and scale up--

https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/disability-inclusion/ideas/deaf-awareness-communication-training-act-project/comments#c-66ff5dfffbd69d59d81ececa519188f3

https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/disability-inclusion/ideas/inclusion-bridges-gaps-for-prosperity/comments#c-1b742bb337684550cf709e6d43b3fba3

Spam
Photo of embracekulture null
Team

Love this concept as persons who are deaf, even if they sign, remain unable to communicate in developing countries. This is especially critical in emergency situations. I will am curious how the translation will work. Will it be word for word or would it separate sentences and translate a full sentence at a time? I know sentence structure in sign language can be vastly different than in written or verbal language. I am minimally conversational in sign language and with friends who are deaf often try to write back and forth. However, the way a sentence would be signed is so different we often run into misunderstandings.

Spam
Photo of OpenIDEO
Team

Hi Melaku Tekle and Team! We’re excited to share with you feedback and questions from the Amplify team and an external set of experts. We encourage you to think about this feedback as you continue to improve and refine your idea. You are welcome to respond in the comments section and/or to incorporate feedback into the text of your idea. Your idea and all associated comments will all be reviewed during the final review process.

- Tell us more about your technical expertise. Are you collaborating with a technology and/or app company to help develop this idea with you?
- We are curious to know your envisioned scope of your idea! Do you have hypotheses you want to test and implement? How are you going to develop the actual sign cues for the app?
- Tell us about some potential barriers your user may encounter. Why are you focusing on words rather than letters? Would it also be good to have the letters implemented so words can be spelled out - or is there a literacy issue as well? Would you consider pre-recorded phrases in both sign and voice instead of the live translation? How can this also be used as a learning tool?
- Besides Deaf persons, who else might download and use SignApp? Could it be adapted to apply to oral deaf persons too? Explore the journeys of multiple users of your idea!

In case you missed it, check out this Storytelling Toolkit for inspiration for crafting strong and compelling stories: http://ideo.to/DXld5g Storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to articulate an idea and make it come to life for those reading it. Don’t forget - June 4 at 11:59PM PST is your last day to make changes to your idea on the OpenIDEO platform.

Have questions? Email us at amplify@ideo.org

Looking forward to reading more!

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

- Tell us more about your technical expertise. Are you collaborating with a technology and/or app company to help develop this idea with you?
Our organization, the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD), has limited technical expertise in terms of software development. ECDD is a local development organization working in the fields of inclusive heath, education and livelihoods for persons with disabilities and their families. Our expertise comes from working closely with Deaf persons, in promoting the use of Ethiopian Sign Language (ESL), and in hiring ESL interpreters. For SignApp development, ECDD has formed a team composed of the following individuals:
Members present:
1. Bob Ransom, ECDD Senior Advisor
2. Retta Getachew, ECDD Executive Director
3. Tesfu Equbeyonas, ECDD Training, and Communications Director
4. Melaku Tekle, ECDD Program Director
5. Liya Solomon, Packard Project Coordinator
6. Eyasu Hailu, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopian Sign Language and Deaf Culture, University Lecturer
7. Alemu Worku, Ethiopian National Association of Deaf (ENAD)
8. Abdulhatif Teglegn, Addis Ababa university Student, Software Developer
9. Tigest Taddesse, Hawassa University, Software Developer
10. Hiwot Samuel (partial visually impaired female University Student)
11. Getachew Gebeyaw (physical Impaired University student)
12. Kirubel Ashanfi, youth with Hearing impairment (self-employed)
13. Amanu Ekubay, youth with Hearing impairment (Self-employed)
14. Etetu Bayelegn, Sign Language Interpreter (Ethiopian National Association of Deaf (ENAD)

From the above list, it can be noted that 2 of our Team members are software developers. It is envisaged to also contract with a local technology company to help in the development of the SignApp software. But given the complexity of the proposed application, we would require advanced technical support from OpenIDEO. In fact, the possibility of such support is what first attracted ECDD to the OpenIDEO competition.

- We are curious to know your envisioned scope of your idea! Do you have hypotheses you want to test and implement? How are you going to develop the actual sign cues for the app?
We have no hypotheses to test. From interviews with both Deaf and hearing persons, as well as sign language teachers and interpreters, we have become convinced that the SignApp would be useful and be used. Ethiopia is a very large country with a population approaching 100 million, of which it is estimated that 1% - at least 1 million children, youth, and adults - are Deaf. This is a significant number who are confronted daily with a major communications barrier that SignApp can help overcome. In addition, our initial estimate of the number of mobile phones already in use in Ethiopia was wrong – there is today over 40 million users, not 1 million. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation has now connected virtually the entire country to the mobile phone network. Most educated Deaf persons own smartphones for text and video communication – via Viber, WhatsApp, IMO, etc. – especially with other Deaf persons. As for ESL cues for SignApp, an ESL Dictionary already exists and SignApp developers will make use of the signs depicted in the dictionary, with support from ESL teachers and users. An Amharic Dictionary also exists.

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Photo of ECDD
Team

- Tell us about some potential barriers your user may encounter. Why are you focusing on words rather than letters? Would it also be good to have the letters implemented so words can be spelled out - or is there a literacy issue as well? Would you consider pre-recorded phrases in both sign and voice instead of the live translation? How can this also be used as a learning tool?
We anticipate potential barriers to be primarily technical in nature. We have no doubt that Deaf persons will download SignApp (but only if it’s free), as most Deaf persons who are literate have smart phones. Given the Ethiopian Ministry of Education policy of inclusive education, the number of Deaf children and youth going to ordinary primary and secondary schools, and learning ESL, is rapidly increasing. Our interviews during feedback phase also indicated that persons working in service occupations – health, education, social services, transportation, law enforcement, airline and travel agencies, and of course government officials and development workers – would mostly likely download and use SignApp to increase their ability to communicate with members of the public who are Deaf. It is less likely that significant numbers of members of the general public would be motivated to do so. The potential barrier of lack of knowledge of the existence of SignApp can be overcome via publicity and advertizing, especially via social media, and potentially through a demonstration on Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), watched by millions of Ethiopians daily – some programs have simultaneous ESL interpretation. ECDD has media contacts to facilitate such programming.
Concerning the issue of letters vs. words – it’s important to understand the nature of the Amharic language and alphabet, which is made up of 126 vowel and consonant combinations (called Fidel) used alone or together to form words. Not all 126 Fidel are commonly used – SignApp would only include the most commonly used Fidel for spelling and words in its spoken Amharic. Similarly, ESL is made up of signs representing words rather than Fidel. Although the use of finger spelling of individual Fidel will be possible in SignApp, it is foreseen that only the most common words and phrases will be included. Thus the idea of pre-recorded words and phrases will definitely be used, especially in the initial SignApp software development phase. However, the ultimate goal of SignApp is real time interpretation.
During the feedback stage, the ECDD Team came to the conclusion, during in-depth discussions with Team members experienced in software development, that development of SignApp required an intermediate stage, developing a Sign to Speech, and Speech to Sign, computer application before developing the SignApp mobile phone application. This is due to the fact that to capture sign language motion, a 3D camera is required, using for example Kinect technology from Microsoft. Most mobile phones are not yet equipped with a 3D camera – but it’s only a matter of time. As a 3D camera can be installed on a computer, it was decided to first develop the required software technology for a computer, while waiting for 3D camera capability on mobile phones.
Yes, SignApp will most definitely include a modality for teaching/learning ESL! Although several mobile phone applications already exist in Ethiopia for learning ESL, in order to increase the attractiveness of SignApp, such a modality will be included – and publicized. The use of existing ESL teaching applications for SignApp will also be explored, but may involve licensing constraints.

- Besides Deaf persons, who else might download and use SignApp? Could it be adapted to apply to oral Deaf persons too?
As noted above, persons working in service industries, especially those relating to customers and members of the general public, would be most likely to download and use SignApp. For example, persons coming into regular contact with Deaf persons – health workers, teachers, shop-keepers, police, etc. Also, hearing friends of Deaf persons would likely download and use SignApp.
Most educated Deaf persons in Ethiopia have knowledge of ESL. Although Deaf children in school today are only taught ESL, members of an older generation learned to speak orally, and have limited knowledge of ESL. It may be possible to include in SignApp a modality for converting Amharic speech to Amharic text, thus enabling Deaf persons without knowledge of ESL to read a moving text on the mobile phone screen of what is being spoken, instead of the ESL interpretation. The Team will consider this as SignApp software development proceeds.

Spam
Photo of Tesfu Equbeyonas
Team

This application is useful and could be easy to learn .The application works to encourage and enable people to learn and practice sign language at their own pace.

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Dear Tesfu, The SignApp will be easy to use and much effort will be put to be user-friendly with enhanced features and interactive as opposed to static contents.

Spam
Photo of Gossa Zeleke
Team

Such innovative ideas are very crucial to solve problems of persons with disabilities access to communication, confidentiality(to communicate with out third part involvement, specially when it comes to health, court and at the religious participation, repent oneself of etc.). So such activities need to be appreciate and supported to overcome persons with disabilities challenges.

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Gosa, Court representation and legal counseling matters a lot to advance equality of opportunity and promotion of rights of persons with disabilities. As you mentioned it, persons with disabilities will easily be getting advice from their lawyers and legal representation would be easily made with the support of the new SignAPP. The health sector is one of the key areas that would be benefiting out of it. Thank you for taking the time to review our SignAPP idea.

Spam
Photo of Bob Ransom
Team

This would be a very practical way to facilitate communication between deaf and hearing persons - if it can be achieved technically. The idea definitely needs advanced technical support for its development - something hopefully OpenIDEO can provide if the idea is chosen for support.

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Bob, True, we hope that during the early stages of prototyping or testing ideas over a period of 3 months, OpenIDEO will support us technically. We're quite sure that they will have the right people for this idea to be mature enough and become a reality in near future. Thanks for being part of the SignAPP team and excellent technical support.

Spam
Photo of Mastawesha
Team

This would be really helpful for all of us to communicate with our friends, government officials, colleagues with hearing impairment easily. Since the confidentiality is a must for most services such as Health sector, date (to have boyfriend/girlfriend with hearing impairment) this idea is the right approach to communicate with them directly. I really appreciated the idea and Keep up the good work!!!

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Dear Mastawesha, Many thanks for the kind words and encouragement. We will definitely keep the idea gooing to realize confidential communication of Deaf persons at the Health Centers and elsewhere. We believe besides confidentiality, at the health sector accuracy of communication is required as the client and health officers need to fully understand each other at all stages of the service delivery. Hence, this is one piece of the puzzle to fill in plus much more social, economic and other life communications of Deaf persons in various walks of life.

Spam
Photo of Retta
Team

Such an important and easy to use "sign interpreter app" to enable communication with persons with hearing impairment. Hearing persons can also use the app to teach themselves some sign language. I especially admired the use of the app to allow direct communication between blind and deaf persons without the need to have an interpreter. Great work ECDD!

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Thank you, Retta for your great role in supporting and facilitating the works SignApp team here at ECDD. We look forward to taking the idea to the next level with your constructive comments and suggestions!

Spam
Photo of richard bishumba
Team

Such a brilliant initiative to help Ethiopians with hearing impairments. Other organizations/countries should borrow a leaf from this. Kudos to everyone who played a role in bringing it to life, if supported it would soon be a solution for the rest of Africa to learn from.

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Richard, we would like to also assure you that, I'm quite confident that we will succeed in this endeavor and try to replicate it in other African countries as well. Thanks for your support and appreciation!

Spam
Photo of KevinsRandiek Okello
Team

This is such a noble idea. All the very best in the initiative. This is a great idea and plays a huge role in creating solutions for Africans

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Kevins,
WE African's need to cater homegrown solutions for our problems. This still requires a grat deal of collaboration among various stakeholders including partners at the Global North. That is what we are doing in here, we generated the idea and hope to develop it to the next step in collaboration with our partners in many parts of the world. Thanks for showing an interest in this SignAPP and we also welcome any further feedback you might have on this idea.

Spam
Photo of Tesfaye Geremew
Team

Such innovative works take persons with hearing impairment many steps to the right side. The app is an excellent key for opening the barrier of communication between deaf and blind people. So, ECDD is doing such an excellent work in addition to implementing many other disability inclusive activities. It is really appreciable and please keep it up!

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Dear Tesfaye, Yes indeed using this App we will break barriers and open doors for our deaf community and help others to effectively communicate and interact with those with hearing impairments. The most interesting part it's it flawlessly help Deaf and Blind to communicate without the involvement of third parties, our third party in between is THE SMART PHONE!

Spam
Photo of Oliver
Team

This is revolutionary. Personally I have always wanted to learn sign language but time rarely allows it. Now with such an innovative app coming up, things will be much easier for both the deaf and those who can hear. I believe Ethiopia is only the origin. Looking forward to seeing it in many other countries.
Viva ECDD! Viva the SignApp!

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Oliver, Vivia to you as well for thoroughly gooing through our idea coming up with the words of encouragement. Once we pilot and test our model, we would expand it to other African countries in collaboration with other like-minded colleagues like you.

Spam
Photo of Elizabeth
Team

Now this is what we call inclusion.☺☺Who knew such an app existed!! As a person with disability who has very many hearing impaired friends it's ever a challenge when it comes to communicating/interacting with them especially when its an emergency or something important,but with this app communitication will be a piece of cake..I'm officially in love with this app��

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Elizabeth, Yes indeed... as our team is also composed of professionals with disabilities, here at ECDD, we felt we needed to do something about it. It is a lived experience for us being challenged with physical, communication and other policy or institutional barriers. We are excited to learn from you, which would give us the opportunity to even extend our mission to address the challenges of our neighboring African countries. It's great that we have you onboard and love to learn more about what you do and how we can collaborate on this or any other endeavors of inclusion of persons with disabilities.

Spam
Photo of Lidya
Team

Its a brilliant idea...Its a good opportunity for persons with hearing impairment to communicate easily and for those who cant access sign language training to easily teach themselves, @least some the basic sign languages. Keep up the good work!!

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Dear Lidya, As you said the app could give the opportunity to learn sign language. But our major objective in this idea is to give the opportunity for the Deaf to communicate fully and effectively. In the meantime, as this would increase the interaction of hearing impaired and others it will create the chance the chance to learn each other and foster social inclusion of persons with disabilities in general. As you may aware, most of the prejudices and bad judgments take their roots from lack of knowledge of persons with disabilities wich finally led them to discrimination and exclusion. We will push the idea forward, thank you for taking your time to review it and send us your feedback.

Spam
Photo of Jay Ineedarts
Team

It's a very great app it will be able to give a voice to the voice less. Great job

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Jay, Thanks for taking the time to review our idea. We also need your expertise in the prototyping the APP, especially on designing the interface. Hope to hear from you and ready to consider your advice on this.

Spam
Photo of Metassebia N.
Team

The idea is brilliant! I hope it will minimize the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in their day to day communications.

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Metassebia, As you rightly said it the App will remove barriers faced by hearing impaired persons.

Spam
Photo of Bethelehem
Team

It's a brilliant idea if materialized. I appreciate what ECDD has done so far and hope will make a big contribution to achieve the SDGs. Good Luck!

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Hi Bethelehem, Thank you so much for the encouragement. We will definitely take this idea to the next level, I'm quite sure, we will find ways to make it happen. As you aware such kind of ideas expected to pass a series of phases with a lot of iterations and prototyping. I hope we will achieve the 17 SDGs to a better world for everyone!

Spam
Photo of Tjitske de Groot
Team

I like this idea very much. It is very practical, easy and understandable and will create inclusion big time. I was wondering how people will gain access to the phones? And does the program needs internet or is it installed on the phone?

Spam
Photo of ECDD
Team

Thank you for your constructive comment and feedback on our idea. Nowadays, most people have smart phones, especially Deaf youths rely more on their phone to communicate with friends and families away from them. For instance, they use IMO, Skype and other video chat Apps for their communication using sign language. The SignAPP doesn't require an internet connection once it is installed on the computer and can be used offline.

Spam
Photo of Paul Zaake
Team

Very timely project as the world looks forward to leaving no one behind when it comes to development. Many more reasons to act now including:

93 percent of deaf children are born into hearing families; Only 7 percent are born into deaf families.
Approximately 2-3 of every 1,000 infants are born deaf or hard-of-hearing.
72 percent of families with children who use sign language do not use sign language with their children
Statistics prove that deaf people live longer than hearing people.
Deaf people have safer driving records than hearing people nationally.
Deaf people develop keener senses of observation, feeling, taste and smell to compensate for their loss of hearing.
Deaf people can sign/talk at great distances without the use of amplification through the use of sign language.
Deaf people vote, pay taxes, drive cars, attend business, social, and religious events.
Being deaf does not affect intelligence.
Deaf people are very aggressive when playing sports against hearing people due to discrimination.
Deaf people fought for the right to “just be.”
Deaf people can do anything except hear.
Babies CAN communicate physically 6-8 months prior to communicate verbally.
Ref:
https://sites.google.com/site/aslclubucr/quotes-facts