Company seeks to make the world accessible to the deaf

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AMMAN — Imagine that I tell you I want you to learn German, but there is one condition — you cannot listen to it. You have to memorize words by shape, you don’t know how letters sound.اضافة اعلان

This is the struggle deaf and hard of hearing people face daily. The World Health Organization estimates that over 5 percent of the world’s population — or 430 million people — have “disabling” hearing loss.

Mind Rockets, a company formed in 2008 with a focus on making the world more accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing, estimates that some 80 percent of those with hearing loss or deafness cannot read or write beyond a very basic level. For these people, everyday life is almost totally inaccessible; a limited ability to read or write impacts everything from job prospects, to reading a menu in a restaurant, to navigating street signs, to even shopping at a supermarket.

The hearing world depends so much on not only talking as a form of communication, but on reading and writing as well — it’s intrinsic and second nature to us.

For the hearing-impaired community, there is little choice in accessibility. Either they struggle to learn how to read or write in order to fit in with the able-hearing community, or they are forced to rely on an interpreter, limiting their independence.

This is why Mind Rockets, using multiple coding languages, created six solutions with virtual interpreters to allow the hearing-impaired to access the hearing world more easily.

“There was one grandmother in the US and she was saying ‘for the first time I can now talk to my grandson and he can understand me, so thank you so much and God bless you.’ … and we knew then that we had something that was impacting peoples’ lives’,” recalls the company’s cofounder, Mohammad Kilany, during an interview with Jordan News.

Mind Rockets was inspired by one of the teachers of Mind Rockets’ founder, Mahmoud Darawesh, who had told him at school that no one was doing anything for the deaf. He then spent the next 13 years developing computer software to solve this, starting with a high school project when he was in the tenth grade, and launching the first mobile application while he was in university.

He later partnered with Kilany to develop the business potential of the app, three years after they had met at Startup Weekend, a networking event for start-ups in technology.

Today, there are three apps that convert text into American Sign Language, Arabic Gulf Sign Language, and Arabic Jordanian Sign Language, as well as a website interpreter, Facebook and Twitter interpreter, and a QR code scanner to make printed material accessible.

“Our technology is built on two parts: The first part is the automatic interpretation of text to sign language, and the second part is improving it, reviewing it, (and logging it) back into our engine. We have three colleagues who are deaf and are responsible for using our software to modify and correct the output to improve accuracy,” Kilany explained.

“One of them is actually our sign language teacher,” adds Kilani. “There are three levels and Mahmoud and I have passed the first level.”

He stresses how important it was to Mind Rockets’ success that the app is developed in cooperation with people from the deaf community.

“When we first started, we had communications with people who are deaf and we found out that without them being a part of the development we would never be successful. More than once we developed a feature that was actually unnecessary.”

“We think of ourselves as helping governments and organizations to become more-deaf accessible. It’s about helping organizations reach out to the deaf community,” Kilani noted.

The first company to adopt the technology in Jordan was Zain Telecom, and Mind Rockets now also works with 15 governmental organizations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, such as the King Khaled International Airport, which is the world’s first sign language-accessible airport accessible in sign language.

According to Kilany, Mind Rockets was invited to a roundtable discussion with Mark Zuckerberg to discuss how to make the world more open and connected.
For their next product, Mind Rockets is working on an assistive technology that can be used with a barcode scanner to turn the information of a product into sign language.

“We were talking to the president of a deaf club and he told us that it was challenging to know the difference between similar products in supermarkets because you had to read the details,” Kilany said.

There is also the problem of the sheer number of sign languages, as, globally, the deaf and hard of hearing community is estimated to use around 300 different languages, according to the UN.

“There is fragmentation in terms of developing different sign languages — when we started developing British Sign Language we discovered that its similarities with American Sign Language were less than 3 percent,” Kilany told Jordan News, stressing the need to include as many national sign languages in their products as possible.

“We know that we alone cannot work on all these challenges,” Kilany says. “There is still so much work to be done.”

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