SPED Teacher Believes More Filipinos Should Study Sign Language As Students Create ‘Talking Gloves’ For The Deaf
A special education teacher commended engineering students for trying to give a “voice” to the deaf community, but he said the people who can hear should do more to connect with those who could not hear and talk.
A pair of gloves using a technology that can interpret Filipino Sign Language (FSL) into audible speech is showing signs of promise for the deaf community. But does it cover the nuances of everything that people who are hard of hearing want to express?
Curt Marvin Cruz, a 26-year-old special education (SPED) teacher, hopes to know the answer even as he commended the efforts of five engineering students from Camarines Sur who are working on this kind of innovation.
For Cruz, FSL has its own unique linguistic features that must be considered when developing new products to help address the needs of people who have serious hearing and speech difficulty.
"It actually triggered my curiosity (as to) how they will consider those features of the Filipino Sign Language such as emotions, the context of the sentences, because they are not just signs," Cruz told The Philippine STAR / OneNews.PH on July 10.
"FSL is not a simple pantomime, which is a common misconception about sign language, not only in FSL. It’s actually from the Filipino deaf community, and it’s very unique to the culture of the place and the whole country," he added.
Through Republic Act No. 11106 or "The Filipino Sign Language Act," the FSL was declared as the country's national sign language in 2018. Like other sign languages, Cruz noted it entails a unique linguistic structure.
“It is highly contextual. It is faster than the usual Signing Exact English," according to the SPED teacher. He was referring to the system of manual communication that strives to be an exact representation of English vocabulary and grammar.
Cruz, who studied FSL at the University of the Philippines Diliman and De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, explained that the crucial part in FSL is its own semantics. "Some signs are shortened, which do not take the literal meaning of the sign, but it is contextual," he said.
In a viral video posted on Facebook last June 28, a group of electrical engineering students from Camarines Sur Polytechnic Colleges (CSPC) demonstrated how their wearable technology can translate FSL into speech.
Based on their video presentation, the gloves have flex sensors and MPU-6050 microchips that detect hand gestures and finger movements. Data is transmitted to the computer via WiFi for processing then translated into audio. Most of the signs are converted word by word.
Cruz is concerned if the gloves will cater to the concepts of signing that have deeper meaning. “Sign language is one of the languages that we should consider for its complexity. I don't think [this] innovation can only touch on the lexicon level or word level,” he said.
“We can develop it more by considering the semantics, the pragmatics. Exploring why the deaf signed it is part of it, and I think it goes beyond the function of the gloves,” the SPED expert and inclusive education advocate added.
According to the CSPC students, an FSL teacher taught them the version of the sign language, which they integrated into their system. They tried to have the gloves tested by a real deaf person but the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions prevented them from doing so.
The device does not yet have a complete FSL vocabulary and it remains under development. The CSPC will keep working on the gloves designed by its students before having their invention patented.
Wearable technologies that attempt to bridge the communication gap between members of the deaf community and the hearing people are not new in the fields of computer and electrical engineering.
In 2016, two University of Washington in the United States undergraduates created a pair of talking gloves to help the deaf and mute communicate with the hearing world, ABC7 reported.
In 2017, engineers at the University of California, San Diego, also in the US developed a smart glove that wirelessly converted the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet into text. It was dubbed the “Language of Glove” and was built using inexpensive electronics.
Last year, a team of bioengineers at the University of California, Los Angeles likewise created a similar device that reportedly translated ASL into speech in real time through a smartphone application.
In the Philippines, the University of Saint Louis Tuguegarao developed in 2018 an electronic glove, which can be used as a teaching aid for aurally challenged learners. The device adopted the ASL system in its program.
In 2015, members of the College of Computer Studies in De La Salle University, Manila presented their research on Sign-language Recognition through Gesture & Movement Analysis (SIGMA).
It combined the technology of a data glove, which used sensors and a computer vision to determine hand positions and gestures. SIGMA functioned on FSL and was intended to be used for medical purposes.
Technology must be inclusive
While their design approaches might be different, all these technologies have one thing in common: they are more inclined to make life easier for individuals who can hear than those who are hard of hearing, Cruz observed.
Cruz is aware such inventions can help people understand the deaf without prior knowledge of sign language, but he is hoping these products would not hold them back from truly learning the FSL, and for these emerging devices to be more inclusive.
“If these gloves are really pushing for the use of FSL, on the end of hearing people, I do believe that they should be encouraged – the more we should study the Filipino sign language, and integrate Filipino Sign Language in the hearing curriculum,” he said.
“The bigger challenge here is, now that we have existing assistive technologies like this, how do we include them (the deaf community) more in [our] society (so) that no one is left behind? The bigger challenge here is social justice and equity,” Cruz added.
Technologies are not the main tools towards achieving a sense of equity, according to the SPED teacher. In the grand scheme of things, the people themselves should pave the way for our deaf community to be accepted and integrated into our modern society.
“Paano sila makaka-access lalo ng ating mga proseso, mga sistema, at bagay-bagay sa ating lipunan? (How can they be granted equal access to our processes, systems, and other things in our society?) I think that is the best gift we could give to them,” Cruz said.
“Masaya po ang mundo ng deaf community. Kasing-kulay po natin sila and kayang-kaya po nating maka-relate sa kanila at kaya rin nilang maka-relate sa atin (The world of the deaf community is joyful. They are full of life just like us and we can relate with each other),” he added.
Thesis project fueled by tragedy
Francis Anthony de Guzman and his groupmates – Rency de la Cruz, Klenn Arvin Alcibor, Joana Renz Jimenez and Maria Andrea Moran – started working on their thesis project titled “Filipino Sign Language to Voice Converter” at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
The graduating students and budding engineers were met with difficulties such as the COVID-19 restrictions, limited resources, poor internet connectivity and budget constraints while developing the device.
Around P20,000 were spent to finish the gloves, which came from their own pockets. But the hardest among these challenges was when their groupmate, Rei Mark Tandaan, unexpectedly died last year. His cause of death was not disclosed.
“Parang ‘yun po ‘yong time na halos down na down po kami. Pero habang tumatagal po, siya na lang po ‘yung nag-inspire po sa amin na ipagpatuloy po ‘yung gawa po namin, na gusto po namin galingan lalo para po i-honor sa pangalan niya and sa family niya po (That was the time when we all felt so down, but as time went on, he was the one who inspired us to continue our work. We want to give it our all, especially to honor his name and his family),” Jimenez said.
While the group admitted that they still need to conduct further research and improve the gloves, doors of opportunities have already opened for the young innovators, shortly after a video demonstration for the device went viral on social media.
“Nakakapawi talaga ng pagod ‘yung pag-viral na ‘yun. Hindi naman kasi namin 'yun expected, just for the sake of memories lang naman kasi ‘yun (That video going viral eased our collective fatigue. We did not expect it. It was just for the sake of memories),” De La Cruz said.
The students said they had no idea it would generate thousands of views, comments and reactions online. The video has received generally positive feedback from the netizens despite the nascency of the technology.
De Guzman, the leader of the group, said the Department of Science and Technology already reached out to them and invited them to join a competition. Their school, meanwhile, committed support to enhance their project.
“Our creation is still incomplete, our innovation. We still need more research to make our device patentable, and hopefully, that's exactly what will happen. We can create good gloves that will be useful to many people,” De Guzman said in a mix of English and Tagalog.
“Kahit po hindi po siya usable at least mabibigyan po ng hope 'yung deaf community, especially po someday, pwede pong magkaroon ng device na makakapagbigay po sa kanila ng boses (Even if it is not yet usable, at least the deaf community is given hope, especially someday, that we can develop a device that can give them a voice),” he added.