Technology helping the deaf community navigate life in the pandemic

Posted at 2:08 PM, Dec 02, 2020

We've all faced challenges communicating during the pandemic, whether it be a shaky Zoom call or asking someone to repeat what they said through their mask.

But for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, communication has been even tougher.

“First thing I did was start carrying a pad with paper and pen and I'd have to ask people to write things down. I can’t understand, when I walk into a store sometimes, what people are saying," said Michael Conley.

Born deaf, Conley relies on reading lips to communicate and says others in the deaf community rely on facial expressions, both of which are often hidden behind a mask now in public.

Conley says while many people are understanding, others get frustrated when he can't understand them. Conley decided not to go to his aunt's funeral due to the communication challenges he would face while at the airport, renting a car, and at the funeral itself.

“As a deaf person, I think I’ve been isolated a lot anyway, and this just adds to it," said Conley.

And after losing his job, Conley faced other communication challenges at home.

“So many of us working from home, we’ve lost our jobs or something has happened where we have to make phone calls we didn’t have to before," he said.

But the tech world is helping improve accessibility, with companies like Zoom and Google enabling live captioning for video calls, transcribing conversations within seconds.

Conley’s also relied on an app that provides real-time captioning for phone calls. Called InnoCaption, calls are captioned by either a stenographer or automated speech recognition software.

“It really changes everything," said Conley. "Before, I used to dread making phone calls. Now, it’s not a problem; it’s freed me completely.”

Funded by the Federal Communications Commission, the app is available at no cost for the deaf and hard of hearing.

"It’s very intuitive," said Conley. "Everything is converted into text in real-time."

Conley says in-person communication would be easier if people wore clear masks, but right now, that’s not happening much, making the innovations in his hand that much more of a lifeline.