New app unlocks sign language for South Africans

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In an effort to bridge the communication barrier between hearing and deaf people, deaf students have created an app that helps teach and interpret sign language.

The app was created by students who attended a year-long course run by Mbula Research and Development startup, at which they learned to code. The app is called ‘Reah’, from ‘hear’, spelled backwards.

Mbula was founded by Wonder Ndlovu, who says deaf people were largely being excluded from IT. The startup is now teaching coding to deaf students, with funding from Imperial Logistics and Sentech.

Reah was launched last month and to date only has about 50 users, but its creators hope that it will achieve wider use. Ndlovu says it took eight months to develop the app, which has functions such as learning to sign; communicating with a deaf person using an interpreter; creating new signs for IT terminology; and finding a sign language interpreter.

Speaking to ITWeb, Ndlovu says very few hearing people could sign, and that the app will teach them basic words and greetings.

If some help with translation is needed, the app can be used to stream a live video of a deaf person signing to the Mbula call centre, and an agent will provide a transcript. The service is offered between 8:30am-4:30pm during the week.

Ndlovu says Reah creators are hoping to use artificial intelligence for the live translation, which will extend the service beyond office hours.

The app can also be used to identify technical words that don’t yet exist in sign language, such as ‘download’, ‘cloud’ and ‘database’.

“We have created the words used in certain industries in collaboration with sign language experts and deaf people in the community. We asked them how they would prefer to sign the new words,” says Ndlovu, adding this is one of the things that makes Reah unique.

The app also helps with finding an interpreter, which can be difficult if you’re not part of the deaf community. Adds Ndlovu. If an interpreter is needed at an event, for example, they can be booked through the platform.

Ndlovu says Reah also has a children’s version, for both those who can hear, and those who cannot. “Some kids are born to hearing parents. The app teaches them sign language. There are games available for them to play once they have learned the signs,” he says.

The Android app is available in the Google Play Store and Ndlovu says they are working on the IOS version.

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