You may enjoy TV — as do many people with hearing or visual disabilities. But those who are both deaf and blind need special help to follow along. Now an innovative technology is turning television signals into a form that deaf-blind people can understand.
Deaf people can’t hear. But they can use closed captioning to read subtitles of the words spoken on TV. Blind people can’t see. But they can make use of visual description in voice-over comments that describe what’s happening on the TV screen. Neither method, however, works for people who are both deaf and blind. That makes it harder for them to “watch” television shows or programs.
Roughly 45,000 to 50,000 deaf-blind people live in the United States, according to the National Center on Deaf-Blindness in Monmouth, Ore. By that center’s count, almost 10,000 of them are under age 22. Thousands of more deaf-blind people live elsewhere around the world.
Ángel García Crespo is a computer engineer at Carlos III University of Madrid in Spain. His group has invented a new way for deaf-blind people to “watch” TV. He unveiled the technology at a conference, last year, in Aveiro, Portugal. The team went on to describe what they’d done in a paper, earlier this year.
The idea for the system grew out of previous work by García Crespo’s group. The team had already worked on making audiovisual materials accessible to people with either vision or hearing disabilities. But the group wanted to help people with both challenges. So they asked some deaf-blind people what would help.
“We heard from them that they would like to know, without intermediaries, what is said in the TV newscasts,” García Crespo says. In other words, the deaf-blind people didn’t want to always need someone else to tell them what was going on. That sent the team brainstorming.
Deaf-blind people rely on their sense of touch to communicate. One way to get info is to have someone on hand — literally. A deaf-blind person can get and give information through touch-based hand signals with another person. But it isn’t always “handy” to have someone else around.
An innovative system can let deaf-blind people “watch” television in real time on their own. Audio and video information from the TV is sent to a machine called a refreshable braille display so deaf-blind people can read it with their fingers.
People who can’t see can also get and send information with a braille line, better known as a refreshable braille display. The braille system uses patterns of raised dots to stand for letters and numbers. A refreshable braille display is an electronic machine with a changeable braille display. Dots or pins rise up or drop down based on electronic information sent to the machine. With such a portable device, someone who cannot see a screen can still read email or other information from a computer.
The new system converts TV signals to data that a refreshable braille display can use.
Currently, the system is only used in Europe. Teams need to tweak the decoding process to work with the TV signals used by broadcasters in different regions. Indeed, it should soon be available in the United States.
Technologies to assist people with disabilities “are fantastic and give deaf-blind people access to digital info and communication,” Bapin says.