11.3: Deaf Telephony: Community-Based Co-Design
Edwin Blake, William Tucker, Meryl Glaser and Adinda Freudenthal
The Deaf Telephony project set out to assist South African Deaf people to communicate with each other, with hearing people and with public services. The team currently comprises researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of the Western Cape (UWC), the Technical University of Delft (TU Delft) and the Deaf Community of Cape Town (DCCT-an NGO). This team has been working for many years with a Deaf community that has been disadvantaged due to both poverty and deafness. The story of this wide-ranging design has been one of continual fertile (and on occasion frustrating) co-design with this community. The team’s long-term involvement has meant they have transformed aspects of the community and that they have themselves been changed in what they view as important, and in how they approach design.
Deaf users in this community started out knowing essentially nothing about computers. Their preferred language is South African Sign Language (SASL) and this use of SASL is a proud sign of their identity as a people. Many are also illiterate or semi-literate. There are a large number of Deaf people using SASL; in fact there are more than some of the smaller official languages. Since the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994 there has been an increasing empowerment of Deaf people. SASL is accepted as a distinct language in its own right. Deaf people encounter many problems with communication. Currently communications technology does not support sign language.
In this case study we present an overview of the action research and design cycles over a period of ten years (2002-2011) during which both technological solutions and methodology were developed. Together with the Deaf community we have, over the years, evolved a way to collaborate for mutual benefit. Action research gradually moved from prototypes for research towards interventions that are used daily at the Deaf community centre. Our case study shares these learning experiences about the changing action research methodology.
The eventual method shares aspects of community-based co-design and action research. This methodology is a way of exploring a design space in a way that alleviates the restrictions of the designer’s own viewpoint and bias. In a cyclical fashion the designers develop according to their skills and learning and according to the users’ expressed requirements and their learning. The researchers and the users end up being the design team.
The Development of Community-based Co-design
The current combined approach, fusing action research, industrial design approaches, education and other societal measures was named ‘Community-based Co-design’. An initial validation of its feasibility was a joint review meeting of research and members of the Deaf community held in 2010. We evaluated the list of projects presented below and found directions for next steps.
The intention of the meeting was to launch the next phase as equal partners. It was clear that for the Deaf community the concerns were frequently of a more immediate nature (for example, an expansion of training in literacy and ICT, which is now emphasized in the forthcoming phase). The researchers would still lead action research measures which aimed at technology delivery in a more distant time but directions would be shaping jointly.
A discussion about how to approach and influence government policy was debated.A tentative outcome was that the most effective method of influencing policy would be to empower Deaf people to communicate their own requirements in interactions with government.Providing communication tools would be a significant aspect of empowerment.
The joint review meeting mentioned above set our agenda for the coming three years, in terms of approach, of roles and in specifying directions.
Our work is driven by the need for Universal Access for communication. From our earlier experiences we now believe that besides practical (technological) solutions and education, it is also imperative is to drive policy implementation. The South African framework of legislation comprises excellent policy on access. South Africa respects the right to be helped by an interpreter, and technology should ensure inclusive use of public amenities by all consumers. However, enacting policy is also about implementing practical solutions. In practice expensive and scarce human interpreters, which are currently the only option, are often not available. Technology (plus education) can be much cheaper than human labour, thereby providing promising solutions. Cost will remain an obstacle even at the more affordable rate offered by new technology. Deaf communication would be greatly aided by lower rates for mobile video streaming - and new government regulations can facilitate this.
Therefore, in the currently ongoing community-based co-design work we do not only target technology research and design, but we address three topics at the same time:
- Technical development
- Influencing government policy concerning Universal Access to communication
- Capacity Building -- ICT training
This long-term intimate involvement with the community has moved us from an ethical position where the researchers are the ‘experts’ and ‘active agents’ obliged to deal ethically with ‘subjects’ or ‘users’ to one where the major ethical consideration is one of reciprocity between equal partners. A long collaboration and mutual trust is needed to learn to collaborate like this.
An overview of the action research cycles. Click on the cycle to view more detail.
The Case Study
The diagram highlights the various stages of our research project and lists the various prototypes that formed nodes in a design trajectory. The cyclical methodology of honing in on an effective implementation can be seen.
The Deaf telephony prototypes are grouped according to our basic methodological stance and then along several architectural themes.
The initial project aims were informed by outcomes from Teldem trials conducted by Glaser with a local Deaf community (Glaser, 2000). The methodology here was the user-centred design within an agile software engineering approach.The Telgo prototypes bridged a Teldem text terminal to a voice device on the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) with Text-To-Speech (TTS). The Softbridge prototypes provided fully automated Deaf-to-hearing bridging between text and speech using Instant Messaging.
Based on user interaction we moved towards a community-based approach where we met the community demands for greater empowerment with regard to technology. At the same time the system testing was done within the community at their centre. The SIMBA prototypes continued the theme of using Instant Messaging but opted for a human relay operator rather than Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR). The text chat prototypes provided synchronous text messaging, similar to the Teldem, but with Internet clients. The video chat prototypes explored asynchronous video messaging to support high quality sign language communication.
Finally we adopted a co-design methodology within the community from about 2008.This resulted in greater exploration of the user lives and lifestyles. Researchers and students all learnt South African Sign Language as part of their involvement with the community.
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