Every single day, we deny 360M deaf and hard-of-hearing people full access to our social & professional lives. What needs to happen to fix that?

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Enter Alma.

Alma is sitting still. Around the dinner table, her family is cheerfully discussing what seems to be her brother’s class stories. But Alma keeps missing the comments he makes. She can’t turn her head fast enough to read his lips.

Another comment… It must have been a joke this time, because everyone is laughing now. Everyone but Alma, of course. Feeling helpless, she grabs a book and will not look away until the end of the dinner.

Alma is hard of hearing. And because of that, she has spent her whole life trying to catch up with what hearing people say, including her own family. It’s not just the dinners. It’s the business meetings she’s part of — she just gets a 3-line summary at the end. Her study group at college, the cafeteria, this cute guy in the store with an accent. Her friends always hanging out in these noisy and dark bars — she stopped going with them, tired to have to fake-smile all the time. Reading lips. Until she feels exhausted or frustrated. Because it’s hard, and because no one gives a damn.

It’s not just her. Every single day, we deny 360M deaf and hard-of-hearing people like Alma full access to our social & professional lives. It’s high time we challenged that.

Why we do what we do.

At Ava, we’re from many walks of life and cultures. We’ve been in Alma’s shoes, or sat across from all kinds of Almas. Experiencing the deaf/hearing communication gap frustrated us so much that we decided to try to do something about it.

We’re together because we deeply believe that hundreds of millions of deaf & hard-of-hearing people in the world should have the right to live a totally accessible life.

By total, we really mean total: accessibility should be possible anytime, anywhere, for everyone.

The wall of silence can break; it must! While we know it won’t be easy, our journey from the last 2 years led us to think that this future, while extremely ambitious and uncertain, is possible. A slight chance: that’s all we need to work hard to beat the odds.

To make total accessibility a reality, here are our fundamental beliefs.

1) We believe in no less than combining audio & visual accessibility.

Isn’t it most natural to rely on your eyes at least as much than your ears when you have hearing loss?

Most of the efforts towards accessibility though have been to compensate hearing loss through the use of hearing aids. But hearing folks imagine that when you get hearing aids, you magically understand them again. If only!

Here’s a first extract, of a normal hearing.

 

And here’s how for many people, hearing loss really sounds like (as recreated by a hard-of-hearing friend, Richard Einhorn):

 

Terrifying, right? Hard to expect a hearing aid to perform as well as your brain.

Hearing aids work well enough in many cases, but often fall short in group conversations. The distance between participants and the background noise around them makes it harder for a hearing aid to do the job. The dynamics of a group conversation mean that you lose the visual accessibility component because reading lips is much harder. Hearing aids are often not sufficient, and part of the problem is that most people don’t realize this!

Ava stands for audio visual accessibility

If you can compensate for this loss of visual cues, you dramatically increase accessibility. Captioning, subtitles in movies, or even sign language are great examples of adding the visual layer. And it kicks ass.

This is why we chose to make Ava visual first.

So how is this different from traditional captioning?

2) We believe a dramatic cost reduction is essential for truly global accessibility.

Q: Why don’t we already use captioning for all conversations then?
A: Because it’s expensive! Though used sometimes by companies and in classrooms, captioning is an hourly service, which costs around $120 per hour. This is not realistic for a truly total accessibility. You wouldn’t add $100 to your tab when getting lunch with friends, right?

The cost of accessibility needs to be 100x less expensive than it is now.

In 25 years, the cost has barely gone down. Other domains have seen great progress, but sadly accessibility laws (such as the ADA in 1990) have created incentives that have led to status quo. Here are the system’s hypocrisies:

  • It created a gilded cage for the Deaf. The US government funds video-interpreted or captioned calls companies. It’s great, except that outside of phone calls, so most of their social life, a Deaf person is is not helped by this services. On top of that, we’ve seen a lot of financial abuses of the system in the past years.

  • It created a professional bias. Companies with less than 15 people (can differ depending on the state) don’t have to provide specific accommodations. In other words, don’t expect to see a deaf/hard-of-hearing person finding a startup job. Even in big companies or in the public sector, incentives are against them: employees need to tread lightly should they want to get a new job or keep their old one.

  • It’s not scalable. Millions of people around the world don’t have a government able to fund similar accessibility costs. A sustainable and scalable model is needed to truly make the world accessible to 400M people.

Is it the accessibility system we want to live in and promote?

Developing innovative speech recognition technologies with the expertise in the accessibility issues is the only way to get to the radical cost decrease that is needed. It is an extremely hard problem, and that’s why Ava is a technology company at its core.

3) We believe that together we’re stronger.

But getting to total accessibility will be a shared effort. We don’t expect to develop all the solutions that are needed to move accessibility forward. We hope to be a part of it, as significant as possible.

Accessibility remains a social experience. A conversation involves people. While Ava is designed to be a collective technology, there are barriers that technology will not break. Prejudices. Lack of awareness. Laziness.

Awareness is the way to go forward. If we’re just a technology company, we won’t be able to push forward the impact we ought to make. As a social enterprise, it’s our responsibility to go beyond, to be more. For Alma, and all the others.

A “resistless energy”, as the hero puts it, in Victor Hugo’s play, Hernani
A social movement.

And we need you for that. Whoever you are, stranger or not. Whatever background you have. Because together we’re stronger.

You know our plan now. We’ve already started.

Ready to join?

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Post by Ava @avascribe
May 20, 2022

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