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Empowering Inclusive Communication: An Insightful Conversation with Sign Talk

In an increasingly digital world, accessibility is paramount. Enter Sign Talk, a 2023 Solve[ED] Youth Innovative Challenge solution, that aims to revolutionize communication between American Sign Language (ASL) users and non-ASL speakers. We sat down with the creators of Sign Talk to delve into the app's development journey, goals, challenges, and future prospects.

Fostering Inclusivity Through Innovation: The Birth of Sign Talk

The genesis of Sign Talk was inspired by a real-life scenario: a deaf classmate struggling to engage in virtual learning due to communication barriers. Determined to address this gap, the creators – Sofia Penttila and Aparna Bhaskar, participated in the Congressional App Challenge 2022 and set out to build a text-to-sign model that could bridge this digital divide.

Designing the app, they came across the gravity of the situation when they spoke to a middle school ASL teacher in San Jose: "Before the pandemic, deaf students were already grappling with being left out socially in different ways. But now, it's like the situation went from bad to worse. With Zoom and online learning becoming the norm, it's thrown in this extra layer of disconnection." 

User-centric approach and continuous refinement

"At the heart of Sign Talk is a commitment to user feedback," shares one of the creators, Penttila. The team's dedication to understanding user needs has led to iterative improvements and a vision that extends beyond the initial concept. "We conducted interviews with diverse sign language users to gain valuable insights," she adds. This process has illuminated the importance of context and nuance in sign language communication, prompting the development of a machine learning model to enhance understanding.

(Classified Pose of Hello in ASL predicted using the model along with the accuracy of the prediction)

Embracing Growth and Collaboration

The journey has not been without its challenges. Balancing school, development work, and personal life has been demanding, especially for a team of two. "We realized the need to expand our team to bring fresh perspectives," Penttila notes. Penttila and Bhaskar have even recruited an ASL interpreter to provide invaluable advice, ensuring the app remains user-friendly and culturally sensitive.

As Sign Talk evolves, so do its aspirations. "While we initially targeted students, the return to in-person schooling prompted us to shift focus towards collaborating with companies," Penttila reveals. The app has the potential to reach many more individuals, with plans to explore collaboration possibilities with big players like Google and Zoom. Bhaskar adds, “This chrome extension will be not only a valuable asset to the deaf community but also to hybrid companies who seek to hire more individuals who use ASL. Additionally, as we continue to grow Sign Talk's reach to include not only Google Meets and Zoom but other platforms like Microsoft Teams, we hope that the entire digital space will be one where there are no barriers to communication for anyone.”

Empowering Accessibility, One Extension at a Time

The future of Sign Talk is brimming with potential. The team is diligently working on a Chrome extension to make the app accessible across different platforms, with a targeted launch by year-end. "We're excited about the prospect of integrating Sign Talk into physical classrooms, enhancing the educational experience for both students and educators," Penttila shares.

(Sofia Penttila (left) with Aparna Bhaskar (right) share Sign Talk during the Congressional App Challenge, 2022)

Sign Talk is more than an app; it's a testament to the power of innovation and empathy. Through collaboration, user-centric design, and a commitment to breaking barriers, the team behind Sign Talk is paving the way for a more inclusive digital landscape. As the interview concluded, the creators extended an open invitation for collaboration, envisioning a future where Sign Talk's impact spans far beyond its inception. 

If you're interested in empowering young innovators, learn about ways to collaborate with Solve.

Youth Innovation

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Youth Innovation

2023 Solv[ED] Youth Innovation Challenge

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