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What Creating a Sign Language App Taught Me About the Hardships of Vietnam's Deaf Community

In neighborhood communities, deaf children are often bullied by their hearing friends, according to my classmate Nguyễn Tài Minh.

Minh learned about this when visiting Xã Đàn Inter-Level School, a school for deaf children between ages six and thirteen. His family often traveled there to visit a friend that had since moved away. The trips allowed Minh to get to know the stories of the students and learn about their lives. He shared with me his desire to create something to help them. In our collaboration, Minh contributed passion and connections with experts while I offered the programming skills I have developed from school classes and independent study. We came up with an idea for an application that could translate Vietnamese sign language into text using AI technology. Minh thought of naming it SIGNTEGRATE, a portmanteau of “sign” and “integrate.”

We began by collecting footage of deaf students at Xã Đàn signing basic sentence structures. Minh contacted and organized professional interpreters, teachers, and students at the school to generate self-recorded videos of simple sign language phrases such as "hi," "nice to meet you." Meanwhile, I worked on the technical details by essentially training our computer model to recognize each hand gesture.

By the end of our work, we had collected more than 250 videos. I scoured GitHub, Stack Overflow, and YouTube for technological tools we could use to track 3D landmarks on the body — elbows, wrists, shoulders — and record their time and space information to train the model to speculate the meaning of each action in real-time. The end product was a primitive model that could translate 10 commonly used sentences with up to 75% accuracy.

Phạm Ninh Giang (left) and Nguyễn Tài Minh (right) with participants and representatives at the National Startup Conference.

After developing the model successfully, we submitted it to the high school division of the National Startup Conference. Our ideas were presented in front of a board of judges and we ultimately received a silver medal. But something gnawed at me.

I developed the application without interacting with a single deaf person. I had naively accepted my friend’s invitation to collaborate because I merely wanted to improve my coding skills. I had not helped the deaf community directly. How could I when I didn’t even know them?

For weeks after, I cringed at the thought of SIGNTEGRATE because I felt like I hadn’t fully committed to the topic. But it did force me to confront my lack of empathy for Vietnam’s deaf and disabled population. Without the project, I might never have thought about them.

Deaf people face a plethora of issues in Vietnam. Their access to education is restricted because Vietnamese sign language instruction typically ends at the elementary level and is rarely offered in secondary education. Their access to daily information through television is also limited. Though the government ordered TV stations to provide captions or live sign language interpreters for TV programs, only a very limited number of news programs have done so.

Moreover, deaf people have a tough time with administrative formalities. For example, it once took a deaf woman 6 attempts to register the birth of her baby with local officials; the registration was only successful after she hired a sign language translator. But not every deaf person has access to translating services. There are approximately only 30 professional sign language translators in all of Vietnam and not only are translators hard to come by, but their service could cost up to VND200.000 per hour, well beyond the means of many in need.

Unfortunately, in Vietnam the hardships surrounding deaf people extend to people living with disability in general. The infrastructure in Vietnamese cities does not support them well. For example, cars and motorbikes are often parked on sidewalks which force people in wheelchairs to travel on the road with other high-speed vehicles. The public bus system is largely inaccessible for the mobility-impaired, and although private corporations like VinBus do offer wheelchair ramps, they’re only available in limited numbers in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Disabled people also face difficulties finding jobs: according to a 2021 article, people with disabilities are employed at half the rate of the population at large.

Used wheelchairs abandoned at a health institute. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

In Vietnam, although there are many charities and organizations dedicated to helping the disabled community, their main objective often stops at providing goods and services, without fighting for rights and laws that would promote inclusive designs that would have wide-reaching impacts. Social policies regarding disabilities and the indifference people show to the issue is a “chicken-or-egg” problem.

If policies created reasonable accommodations for disabled people, they would have more opportunities to take part in society’s functions and that integration would help more people become aware of their struggles. For example, if public transportation were designed to accommodate disabilities, then many with mobility issues might find it easier to join the workforce.

These realizations have helped motivate my desire to consider how future products and software I develop should take the needs of deaf and disabled people into consideration. Extending their utility to include members of those communities will be an important part of the process.

My hope is to inspire and challenge other young designers, artists, engineers, architects, inventors, advocates, and programmers like myself to consider sensory and mobility impairment in their creations and plans. Doing so could help everyone. Text messaging was originally designed for deaf persons and the ergonomic screwdriver was devised for people with arthritis, but they grew to benefit everyone. If we understand that such an outlook might help everyone, including our disabled brothers and sisters, then we can better embody the often-touted dictum: “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”

Phạm Ninh Giang is currently a Grade 11 student at Hanoi-Amsterdam High School. His project SIGNTEGRATE, in collaboration with classmate Nguyễn Tài Minh, won second prize at a national startup idea competition for students held earlier this year.

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