More Development Needed For Sign Language Apps

More Development Needed For Sign Language Apps

The first indications that something had gone wrong with the operation emerged as Lela Finkbeiner awoke in a recovery room. She had undergone an experimental procedure on her mouth that promised to help her speak again. “My right eye was so swollen it looked as if someone had punched me,” she remembers. That unsettled Finkbeiner a great deal because, as a deaf person, she is almost completely reliant on her vision to be able to communicate.

Then she noticed the taste of blood in her mouth – a scar had begun bleeding. “Is that normal? Is that supposed to happen?” she thought. Slowly she gathered the strength to get up and walk to the mirror. The sight of her bloody, swollen face shocked her. She called for the doctor. He hurried in with some specialists, none of whom spoke to her. Every time she tried to get more information they held their fingers up to her face: “One moment please.” Then they all left again. And Finkbeiner was left alone to wonder what could be happening.

Eventually the doctors returned. But Finkbeiner could not even read their lips which were obscured by surgical masks. To make matters worse, she had to turn her head away repeatedly to wipe off the blood dripping from her mouth, forcing her to miss even more information.

Finally the doctor scribbled a note on a slip of paper informing her that an artery on her right side had burst. Finkbeiner wondered how they would treat it, perhaps by prescribing a pill or something? She had no reference for what to expect. Aside from a few stray sentences Finkbeiner was totally shut out from the communication. Suddenly the doctors wheeled her bed out of the room. She deduced from the commotion that she was heading for another operation, and then: darkness accompanied the silence.

Finkbeiner’s second operation was a success. The doctors were able to stop the bleeding. But she still thinks about the isolation and fear she experienced in the recovery room that day. For Finkbeiner the worst part of her story is not that it is traumatic, but that it is typical. Most of the 80,000 deaf people living in Germany can relay a similar horror story about a trip to the hospital.

Fortunately several companies have identified the potential for technology to relieve the situation. One of the most prominent on the German market is iSignit, an app that translates pre-defined phrases into text form or sign language for use in hospitals and doctors’ practices. Because the database is connected to the phrases on the device no internet connection is required to run the app. English, German and Austrian versions of sign language are available.

Although the app has been downloaded 1,820 times this year alone – with overall positive reviews – it is unlikely to be the saviour it could be. According to Dr Urs-Vito Albrecht, co developer of the app and deputy director of the Peter L. Reichertz Institute for Medical Informatics, it is not suitable for emergency situations yet. “The app cannot perform direct translations,” Albrecht says. “That would exceed the capabilities of our current technology and would present the risk of generating imprecise translations.” He continues to recommend having interpreters in hospitals. “The app can only be used as a support,” he says.

In the meantime an app for emergencies remains a big need in the deaf community. Standard German health insurance entitles deaf patients to a translator during consultations with doctors, but a lack of translators on call in hospitals means that technology will have to fill the gap.

Since 2011 an Austrian company called Video Dolmetschen has made video consultations with deaf patients possible. The system has been rolled out in selected hospitals but a country or region-wide solution has yet to be implemented.

Lela Finkbeiner has put her efforts into an offline initiative. In September 2014 she created a series of workshops and seminars to educate medical personnel on how to treat deaf patients. Whether online or offline, her hope is that deaf people can get the support they need to never have to go through what she did.


T L Andrews


TL Andrews is a multi-media journalist based in Berlin. He produces features for radio, television and print outlets with a focus on German and European issues.

LinkedIn | More articles by T L Andrews