I’m sure you’ve seen these signing gloves that have gone viral on the internet. Or these ones. They are worn on the hands and translate signs into speech. Seems like pretty amazing technology, right? Well, the truth is, these gloves are not that great. Here’s why:
As might appear obvious, these gloves translate only the signs themselves. This means that depending on what handshape you’re using and where your hands are in space, the gloves can determine what you’re signing and translate it. There is a glaring problem here, however. If you know American Sign Language, you know that the signs themselves hold only a fraction of the meaning. There is rich language in the eyebrows, the mouth, the body, and the manner in which the signs are produced. For example, moving your eyebrows can change a question to a statement. Signing the same sign harder and faster can denote a synonym. Pulling your lips back indicates something that happened recently, a form of tense. Moving your body from one side to the other can depict a list. All of this would be lost on the gloves, therefore leaving the signer with a robotic caveman-like production of their ASL.
The programmers of these gloves do not know American Sign Language. In one sample video of how the gloves worked, the creator signed a simple sentence in Signed Exact English (SEE), not ASL. SEE and ASL are very different; while ASL is a language, SEE is not. The programmers not only did not know this vital distinction, but even programmed the signs wrong. In the sample video, the gloves were programmed to say “my” when the person signed “I.” Imagine if I were creating a product that translated French without knowing any French. Or, if I did know some French, I didn’t think to ask native French speakers if my product made sense when it produced their language. This leads into my next point:
The gloves’ designers are not Deaf, nor did they incorporate the opinions of Deaf people into their design. For a product that purports to help a group of people, it should at the very least enlist the opinion of that group of people. If a Deaf person had been consulted on this project, I am sure they would have made all the points I am making right now.
Any conversation with someone wearing these gloves would be a monologue. That is: the person wearing the gloves would have to be Deaf, right? Imagine they sign to a hearing person and the gloves (somehow) translate the signs into speech. The hearing person received the message, but how will they respond? If they speak their answer, the Deaf person cannot hear it. The hearing person can’t sign their response back because they clearly don’t know ASL or they wouldn’t need a Deaf person to be wearing signing gloves. They could write their response, but then why didn’t they just write the whole conversation?
The gloves’ mere existence perpetuates a mindset that Deaf people are required to accommodate to hearing folks’ language abilities. Why is it the duty of a Deaf person to wear gloves that “translate” their language when it’s just as easy for a hearing person to learn a few signs? It also perpetuates the idea that ASL is comprised of a bunch of signs. It’s not— in fact, it’s comprised of a multitude of complex linguistic signals, just like any other language.
So before you share these viral articles about gloves that can translate signs into speech, take a second and ask a Deaf person you know what they think about it. I have a feeling they’ll tell you that those signing gloves are not that great.