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

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wireless companies, cell phone manufacturers, and video relay service companies (who provide government-subsidized assistance to allow phone calls between a deaf person and a hearing person) all have to coordinate to some extent to make the technology work. Ladner’s group is in conversation with all three types of companies.

Even though there are only upwards of 1 million American Sign Language (ASL) users in the U.S., Ladner still believes the technology has the potential to succeed commercially. Similar services are already on the market in Sweden and Japan.

“There’s always this issue. Do you want something to be an iPhone-level success, or go into a smaller market and have a bigger impact there?” Ladner said. “Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs always think about the next iPhone, but I think there are a lot of smaller things with good markets too.”

The project that changed Ladner’s research focus to accessible technologies is the Tactile Graphics Project, which employs various technologies to emboss images (such as textbook figures), creating tactile “pictures” for the blind. One aspect of this project converts text within figures to braille or speech, and this technology could also be used to automatically translate figures that include text in one language into other languages. Ladner is also very excited about a project that one of his graduate students, Jeff Bigham, has spearheaded. WebInSight improves accessibility of the Web to the blind and includes the program WebAnywhere, which is software that converts the text on any website into speech.

Ladner’s newest project is an educational and social networking site for deaf students of math, science, and engineering. One component of the site is technology to allow better interpretation for deaf students in hearing classes, that would provide interpreters familiar with the subject material to transcribe lectures, and captions along with the presentation slides on a student’s laptop. There’s also a new organizational part of the site devoted to cataloging signs for science and technical terms that don’t yet exist in ASL. Currently, deaf students and their interpreters may invent signs for specialized terms, but there’s no way to communicate those new signs to the whole deaf community.

“It’s a way for the language to grow even though the people using the language are rather dispersed,” Ladner said.

Ladner said the big shift in his research focus after a relatively established career in computational theory is keeping him young. “Since I changed to accessible technology, I’m just in huge demand, I get phone calls every day,” he said. “It’s like there was something pent up there, a real need for this. Plenty of people are doing computational theory, but hardly anyone is doing this.”

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

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