Friday, January 06, 2017

Signing Gloves: Useful for AAC

Recently there's been a bunch of hype and controversy over this invention:

These gloves are designed to detect when the wearer produces signs and speak the equivalent word out loud.

The criticism has focused on several points. Firstly, proper ASL has a different grammatical structure than English, so word-for-word translation might make about as much sense for ASL->English as it does for Japanese->English. (Not a random comparison, by the way - as someone learning both ASL and Japanese, I've noticed the two languages have some grammatical features in common that aren't found in English, such as starting a sentence with a topic phrase.) ASL also uses nonmanual markers, such as furrowed brows for wh-questions or shaking your head to negate a statement, which will be missed by these gloves.

Secondly, and more importantly, the gloves only translate one way. Let`s say a Deaf person wearing these gloves signs something, and the gloves say it out loud. Then their conversation partner responds verbally, and they have no idea what that person just said to them. Not very useful, is it?

However, both of these criticisms are only an issue for Deaf signers, and not for hearing signers with AAC needs.

Firstly, most hearing AAC signers have much better receptive than expressive verbal language. Some disabilities, such as apraxia or tracheotomy needs, don't affect receptive verbal language at all. Others cause delays in receptive language, but not as severe as expressive language delays. So if the person they signed to responds in speech, this doesn't pose a problem in the slightest. While having signs modeled by others is important for learning, they don't need the signs to understand what others are saying to them.

Secondly, regarding the grammar issue, most AAC signers don't use ASL grammar. They're typically taught to sign using key word signing, a variant of SimCom where only a few key words are signed as the sentence is spoken. (An example, with signed words bolded: "Let's go get something to eat.") Since their models use telegraphic signing with English word order, that's what AAC signers tend to produce as well. They also don't tend to use ASL nonmanual markers, instead using similar body language to hearing speakers.

So, who would benefit the most from these signing gloves? Uncommon Sense's post, The Limitations of Sign Language for Children With Speech Delays, is relevant here. She lists four reasons that using aided AAC is preferable to signing - most people don't understand signs, children shouldn't depend on another person to translate, fine motor issues lead to garbled signs, and aided AAC can be learnt more quickly than signing can (I can confirm that this is true for me, too).

The signing gloves eliminate the first two concerns. With signing gloves, an AAC user can sign to anyone who understands English and be understood, with no need for translation. They also bring the same benefit for verbal language that an SGD does - many kids using SGDs learn to speak better by echoing the SGD voice.

However, the gloves can't compensate for fine motor delays, and they don't help the AAC user or their models to learn new signs. If the gloves can be reprogrammed for each user, they'd be more useful for an AAC user with fine motor issues, but only to a point - if the user's production of two different signs is indistinguishable, or if they simply can't produce even an approximation of certain signs, the gloves won't solve the problem.

As for the learning issue, this is something that needs to be considered on a case by case basis, taking into account how young the AAC user is (how much do you need to catch up on?), whether they have access to a trained sign language instructor, what resources untrained caregivers have to learn signs, and so forth.

One of the big advantages of signing over using an SGD (the person always has their hands) is also lost by the signing gloves. I've seen no information about whether the gloves are waterproof or not, but I'm guessing they aren't. And no doubt there will be many other situations where the gloves must be removed - doing messy activities, fine motor activities, etc. However, anyone who can use the signing gloves can also sign without the gloves, provided their communication partner is able to understand them.

However, signing gloves also have a couple more advantages over an SGD. Firstly, an experienced signer can sign as quickly as most people speak, whereas an SGD user, no matter how skilled, will always be slower to communicate than a speaker is. The signing gloves don't seem like they would seriously impede signing speed (although their designer certainly isn't capable of demonstrating that!).

Secondly, they're quite portable. Ambulatory SGD users, especially small children and those with poor balance and/or strength, often have difficulty carrying their communication device around with them. Tablet SGDs are more portable than most dedicated devices, and there are various carrying straps and similar options, but none of them are as easy and convenient as wearing gloves.

In conclusion, while they certainly wouldn't work for everyone or in every situation, signing gloves seem like a promising option for some AAC users - especially if they've already had a lot of success with signing.


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