Technologies for the Blind and Deaf Could Have Much Broader Impact, Says UW’s Richard Ladner

Think about the technological tools you use most often. For many of us, cell phones and computers rank high up on that list. But these devices are designed with the hearing and sighted in mind, and are constantly evolving, so there are numerous hurdles to clear to make a phone or a computer usable to the blind or deaf.

The University of Washington’s Richard Ladner, along with students in the electrical engineering and computer science departments, is using engineering and computational tools to work on several of these hurdles—and the commercial applications could have far-ranging impact.

“When you think about a person with a disability, such as a blind person, most people think that’s a medical problem,” he said in a recent interview. “Just restoring the human function may be a solvable problem, but probably not for a long time. But maybe there’s another way to get the same thing done, to allow a person to read a book or talk to their family. So thinking non-medically, as an engineer, there are other ways to solve these problems.”

Ladner, who was born to two deaf parents, also believes that technologies developed for the blind and deaf may eventually lead to broader technological advancements—not such a far-fetched idea, as it’s happened before. Mobile GPS was originally developed as an aid for the blind, Ladner said, as was optical character recognition, a technology developed in the 1960s to turn an image of text (such as a photo of a book page) into digital text, which would then be read out loud using speech synthesizers. Now, the same technology is ubiquitous in turning pictures of text into digital text;Google uses it to digitize books.

Ladner used to work on computational theory before shifting to accessible technology in 2002. He and colleague Eve Riskin, professor of electrical engineering, are now trying to take their long-running project on accessibility for the deaf, MobileASL, to the market. This project uses video compression technology to enable signing over video cell phones on low-bandwidth wireless networks (such as those in the U.S.). Currently, deaf people can’t reliably use video cell phones to communicate using sign language, because the videos are too choppy to be intelligible. Ladner and his colleagues are working with UW TechTransfer on commercializing MobileASL.

“We’re trying to get it out and get it in actual use,” he said. “It’s in high demand. I get hundreds of e-mails about it.”

Although designed with the deaf in mind, MobileASL could be used by anyone who wants better quality video phone calls, Ladner said. Bringing it to market is slightly complicated by the fact that … Next Page »

Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at Follow @

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  • I myself deaf. I use Text mobile on my cell. And most of the time hearing people usually call me with voice. I hanged up and text manually back in response. OOPS! It was landline phone. It was frustration for me. Also, I am struggling to keep up business with my massage therapy since 2007 and I paid verizon mobile phone with texting only. And also using email service 5 dollars each month extra along with unlimited text at 99 dollars each month but My husband is deaf too. He gets 99 dollars per month as same phone.. we pay 200 per month for that verizon. I asked verizon to get reduced payment for it.. they will reduce it. IF … I accept the voice answering service. That is bad deal! Anyway, there is another subject about having festivals or events or flea markets or deafnation expo or regular expo booths everywhere. Why not to establish to recongnize our technology for Deaf and Blind people have this development? Well, HSDC program (Hearing Speech Deafness Center) has lay off people who volunteered work and did not receive any money. Even Deaf-blind light house has no money to support to pay for the interpreter provision for deaf and blind as a independent living of their own sighted world are dark to them. The deaf and blind confinded in a dark and quiet world. They need to see and need to hear. but they CANT CANT do that. How? Can we help them. As we dont have a job to get hired because of no money??? Hey what happen to the job has been lay off??? Lets find out go ahead and look up