That sentiment is widely echoed. “ASL gloves are mainly created/designed to serve hearing people,” said Rachel Kolb, a Rhodes Scholar and Ph.D. student at Emory University who has been deaf from birth. “The concept of the gloves is to render ASL intelligible to hearing people who don’t know how to sign, but this misses and utterly overlooks so many of the communication difficulties and frustrations that Deaf people can already face.”
Julie Hochgesang, an assistant professor of linguistics at Gallaudet, said she rolls her eyes when another glove is announced. “We can't get decent access to communication when we go to the doctor. Why bother with silly gloves when we still need to take care of the basic human-rights issues?”
So why do so many inventors keep turning to the sign-language glove concept?
One reason is pretty obvious: Despite the popularity of ASL classes in American colleges (enrollment in such courses grew by 19 percent between 2009 and 2013), non-signers often don’t know that much about sign language. They may not even realize that ASL (and other sign languages, such as British Sign Language, Chinese Sign Language, and dozens of others) are distinct languages with their own grammars and phonologies, not word-for-word reformulations of a spoken language. Additionally, says Forshay, “People have no knowledge of the culture of Deaf people and how signed language has been exploited and oppressed over history.” As a result, they’re not aware of why the issue would be so sensitive.
An equally potent but less immediately apparent reason is the way engineers approach problem-solving. In engineering school, students are taught to solve only the mathematical elements of problems, says the Virginia Tech engineering educator Gary Downey. In a 1997 article he noted that “all the nonmathematical features of a problem, such as its politics, its power implications for those who solve it, and so forth, are given,” meaning they’re bracketed off. Students are prepared to focus on sensor placement or algorithm design, but often not the broader social context that the device they’re designing will enter.
The specific application of Lipomi’s glove as an accessibility device seems to have been an afterthought. The project’s purpose, he wrote on his blog later, was to “demonstrate integration of soft electronic materials with low-energy wireless circuitry that can be purchased economically.” The American Manual Alphabet was chosen because “it comprises a set of 26 standardized gestures, which represent a challenge in engineering to detect using our system of materials.”
However, engineers seem to be hearing and responding to linguists’ complaints. Pryor and Azodi, the inventors of the UW SignAloud project, signed on to the UW open letter. And when Darren Lipomi heard about the linguists’ criticisms, he changed the wording of his paper with an addendum to PLOS One and wrote a blog post encouraging researchers to be more culturally sensitive. “The onus is thus on the researcher to be aware of cultural issues and to make sure ... that word choice, nuance, and how the technology may impact a culture is properly conveyed to the journalist and thence to the public,” he wrote.