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Usage of wording surrounding American Sign Language

Posted by dlipomi on 19 Aug 2017 at 23:17 GMT

My name is Darren Lipomi, the corresponding author of this paper. I must take ownership of an issue surrounding this paper that has the potential to insult both the Deaf community and the linguistics community. Since the publication of our paper, it has come to our attention that we used wording surrounding American Sign Language imprecisely. This imprecision possibly led to inaccurate portrayals of this work in the media that suggested that the device described in this paper “translates” American Sign Language (ASL), when in fact what it does is convert signs of the American Manual Alphabet to text. This capability is properly called fingerspelling, and is used by signers to convey loan words from English. American Sign Language is a language rich in complexity and consists of movements of the hands, the arms, the body, and the face, which are well outside the ability of the gloves to detect, much less to translate. Any suggestion that a single electronic glove is in any way capable of translating ASL was unintentional.

The purpose of this paper was to demonstrate integration of soft electronic materials with low-energy wireless circuitry that can be purchased economically by research laboratories. It was our hope that a complete description of such a device in the peer-reviewed literature would lead to innovation in virtual and augmented reality (e.g., for education and surgical training), devices for physical therapy (e.g., for rehabilitation or for neurological disorders when the sensors are coupled with actuators), and devices for non-verbal communication for first responders (e.g., police). As a demonstration of the ability of this glove to recognize gestures, we used it to convert the letters of the American Manual Alphabet to text viewable on a smart phone. We chose this alphabet as our model system because it comprises a set of 26 standardized gestures, which represent a challenge in engineering to detect using our system of materials. Unfortunately, use of the word “translate” with respect to the alphabet used in ASL encouraged some in the media to suggest that the glove could “translate ASL.” This characterization made it possible to interpret this aspect of our paper as an example of cultural appropriation—that is, taking an element from a culture to suit our own needs.

In 2016, a team of students at the University of Washington (UW) won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for a glove capable of recognizing gestures. This invention received significant press coverage, which characterized it as capable of “transliterating sign language into text and speech” (SignAloud, An open letter published by the UW Department of Linguistics to UW’s Office of News and Information objecting to the characterization of this device and similar inventions can be found at the top of the page here, or directly here. We encourage all researchers and reporters in the field of human-machine interfaces to read and understand the arguments and legitimate concerns made in this letter. To summarize, the open letter takes the position that such devices are designed as a convenience for hearing people as the burden is on the signer to wear the apparatus. (While in principle there exists the possibility of hearing people to use more sophisticated versions of such devices for the purposes of learning ASL—as in the voice-recognition software used for learning spoken languages—such an explicit capability was not mentioned in our paper.) Perhaps a larger issue is that such technologies reinforce the misconception that sign languages represent mere manual versions of spoken languages, when in fact they have their own grammar and syntax, and are capable of expressing ideas and emotions in ways that spoken languages are not: an analogy would be a word or phrase in one spoken language for which there is no adequate translation into another. Characterization of gesture-recognition devices as “sign language translators” suggests that members of the Deaf community “need help” and may contribute to audism—the discrimination against and marginalization of the Deaf.

It is critical for researchers and reporters to be aware of cultural issues when communicating scientific results to the media. The business of reporting in science and technology is admittedly difficult. Science journalists cannot possibly be experts in all aspects of every field in which they are asked to report. This limitation is especially consequential when research in the physical sciences and engineering touch on aspects outside of their traditional boundaries. Peer review cannot be expected to catch all instances of overstepping, as the reviewers are generally also physical scientists and engineers, and may also be ignorant of the cultural ramifications. The onus is thus on the researcher to be aware of cultural issues and to make sure—to the extent possible—that word choice, nuance, and how the technology may impact a culture is properly conveyed to the journalist and thence to the public.

In our case, we would like to enter the following changes to the published version of the manuscript, made official by posting here:

In the first sentence of the Introduction, “This paper describes a sensor glove capable of converting hand gestures to text wirelessly using American Sign Language (ASL),” should be read as “This paper describes a sensor glove capable of simple fingerspelling using gestures associated with the letters of the American Manual Alphabet used in American Sign Language (ASL),”. Also, in the description of the Supporting Information, two instances of “ASL translation” should be changed to “conversion of the American Manual Alphabet to text”.

No competing interests declared.

RE: Usage of wording surrounding American Sign Language

dlipomi replied to dlipomi on 11 Sep 2017 at 23:08 GMT

The full URL to the letter from the Department of Linguistics at the University of Washington can be found here:

No competing interests declared.