Tanya Basu

In the next few weeks, Ava will introduce a floating box that automatically subtitles conversations in any video chat, whether it takes place in Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, or elsewhere.

“We were supposed to release [the live-captioning update] in September,” Duchemin says. But the crisis forced him to get it out in three weeks. 

These updates are aimed primarily at users who are deaf or hard of hearing, but others may also benefit. Duchemin says he’s received positive feedback on live captioning from hearing people too: students who miss class lectures and use transcripts to catch up, for example, and people who have bad video connections. 

But captioning does not solve every problem. Howard Rosenblum, the CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, says his organization lobbied for ASL interpreters and audio transcriptions for all emergency broadcasts, to little avail (President Trump’s daily news briefings still lack ASL translators). And this gap extends to public health and emergency information, too. “The information found in many government resources is not accessible to many deaf and hard of hearing people, especially those who use ASL as their primary language, which is a language distinct from English,” Rosenblum says.

This issue is at its most acute in hospitals, where social distancing means interpreters are not on hand and face masks make lip-reading impossible, creating communication breakdowns that are frightening for patients and potentially dangerous if they cannot understand what is being said. These difficulties have prompted the National Association of the Deaf to create a hospital communication guide that includes tips such as bringing ample pens and paper, along with chargers for tablets, to help people communicate without interpreters.

One simple solution is the use of clear face masks. In the US, Safe ’n’ Clear produces medical masks with a clear plastic section over the mouth so patients can see the lips of the medical staff attending to them. Another company, ClearMask, was started in 2017 after cofounder Allysa Dittmar, who is deaf, was wheeled into surgery without an interpreter. “It was horrible,” she told Johns Hopkins Magazine in 2018. “I didn’t feel human.”

Demand has surged during the coronavirus pandemic, says Ditmar. As of May 16, orders were up by more than 500% from the same time last year, with the company providing bulk orders of 10,000 masks each for hospitals and communities in need. Safe ’n’ Clear has been consistently selling out: its stock set to ship in June sold out in a few hours, and the company says it is unable to fulfill orders for July. Amateur efforts have sprung up to fill the gaps. Ashley Lawrence, a deaf student at Eastern Kentucky University, raised over $3,000 for a GoFundMe campaign she spearheaded to sew clear masks. Similar volunteer efforts are organizing worldwide. YouTube videos walk people through how to create such masks from scratch.

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