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October 30, 2004

Scene and heard

From: The Age - Melbourne,Victoria,Australia - Oct 30, 2004

By Fran Molloy October 30, 2004

Sadao Hasegawa, a blind man in Japan, has set up a website called Telesupport Net which uses sighted volunteers to help visually impaired people using the video capabilities of 3G mobiles.

Blind users point their mobile's built-in camera at the place or object that they want to decipher, and the sighted person on the other end of the phone can report back to them immediately.

Ads screened in Australia earlier this year for Hutchison's 3 showed a father signing to his daughter, and in September, the company's Swedish affiliate launched a 3G signing support program including sign-language web pages, for Sweden's deaf community.

However, Rebecca Ladd, the executive director of community services at the Deaf Society of New South Wales, says 3G videophones are still not good enough to convey the visual-gestural sign language of Auslan, which uses fast hand movements, facial expressions and body language to convey meaning. "No one in the deaf community in Australia uses video mobiles to sign in regular conversation. The screen is too small and they're just not fast enough," she says.

Ladd says that the biggest impact on Australia's deaf community has been the advent of SMS. "In my organisation, one-third of our staff are deaf. We sign every day, but we also use SMS all the time; it has just revolutionised our communication."

Emeritus Professor Des Power, of the Centre for Applied Studies in Deafness at Griffith University in Brisbane, and Professor Mary Power have recently completed a research paper on the impact of texting on deaf people.

"Many deaf people have problems with written English," Des Power says. "They are most comfortable with signing, so any kind of opportunity to sign over distance is just the answer to their prayers. But the informal language used in texting is great for them."

The use of SMS has also helped reduce the isolation many deaf people have had from mainstream communication.

"They can use things like roadside assistance, book tickets," Power says. "It's just made life so much easier; it has been revolutionary."

Until recently, Tim Noonan was excluded from the SMS revolution. Noonan is a consultant specialising in emerging technology trends and accessibility issues. He is also blind. Despite most blind people being early mobile phone adopters, the text-based messaging boom left many feeling out of touch with their sighted friends.

"For anyone between 18 and 40, access to SMS is part of social inclusion," Noonan says. "When your mates are texting a group message to arrange drinks or keep in touch and you can't read that message, it can be a big issue for young blind people."

With the advent of high-end mobiles (such as the Nokia Symbian Series 60), blind and vision-impaired users can install software to allow speech-enabled access to text messages, appointment calendars and contact lists.

One example is the software application developed by Cingular Wireless called TALKS, which converts on-screen menus, instructions and content into speech on the phone's internal speaker or through a headset.

While some aspects of 3G technology are appealing, particularly email access via a text-to-speech phone, Noonan says he's not aware of blind people in Australia using 3G videophones for support. "I can see how it might be useful if I was lost. I use my mobile for that, though I have had the situation where two of us blind people have been on the phone trying to find each other in a crowd and it's not until we hear each other speak outside the phones that we can find one another."

Copyright © 2004. The Age Company Ltd