Tech News: The future is Lipreading? - VISUAL

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Tech News: The future is Lipreading?

Taking the form of a fictional news report, this text by Louise Hickman was written in response to Jenny Brady’s Receiver (2020) and Emanuel Almborg’s Talking Hands (2016), two video pieces exhibited as part of Speech Sounds. Using speculative fiction and imagined futures to illuminate issues faced by d/Deaf community in the present, Hickson imagines a new piece of technology, ‘real-time lips‘, and how it would link to oralism, surveillance and the erasure of Deaf culture.

Tech News: The future is Lipreading?

New tech for lipreading – heavy on universal design, moderate on innovation and light on human rights: the Department of Hearing Standards’ push for an automated method of language acquisition meets with protest from the Deaf Community and poses a threat to the legacy of Deaf culture.

By Louise Hickman (London, UK) -- 23rd April 2050

For the past forty years, the Department of Hearing Standards has issued a bi-annual “Instruction Manual for Lipreading” for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Today, the Hearing Standards is withdrawing the lipreading manual in favour of a new tech designed to simultaneously capture the faces of lip speakers and translate their speech into text. This latest design, called ‘real-time lips’, is understood to be far superior to speech-to-text translations and means facial expression and spoken language can be live-captured using a mobile phone pointed at the speaker’s face, interpreted, and instantaneously translated into text for the deaf person to read on their device. However, the move has angered activists in the d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities as the instruction manual provided a vital resource for deaf children and adults who, due to lack of access to Universal Health Care Credits, were unable to learn the Ancient Sign Language (ASL) systems in their local regions.

Despite being hailed by the Deaf Community as the gold standard of non-verbal language systems, ASL is seen to be increasingly untenable as a primary mode of communication by the Department of Hearing Standards. Though it is still being taught at some universities, it has been reported that less than a dozen students enrolled in the subject in the past year, a strong signal that Ancient Sign Language is almost obsolete. At one point, students enrolled in ASL classes to train as full-time sign language interpreters for Deaf people in education, the workplace, and to facilitate access to medical care, but there has been a year-on-year downturn in enrolment numbers. Hearing Standards has already identified these falling numbers as an opportunity to restrict the teaching of Deaf Culture in university classrooms.

This wasn’t always the case: in the early 2010s, the Department of Hearing Standards worked alongside the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community to build a dictionary of local dialects of ASL. This was a popular project and was endorsed by the Deaf community. However, after just a few years the Department of Hearing Standards ceased publication of the ASL Dictionary in favour of the lipreading manual, much to the dismay of advocates in the d/Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing communities. To them, this was a move to devalue Deaf Culture: they argued that lipreading was not a reliable form of communication for deaf people and inherently Oralist in its reliance on the hearing world. Lipreading does not fit with the core values of Deaf culture, in which linguistic access to signs is a source of pride and central to identity and community – signified in the use of the (upper case) ‘big D’.

Despite lipreading being unpopular with militant signers committed to ASL, the withdrawal of the lipreading manual is seen as another blow to the legacy of Deaf Culture. Dr Cogswell, a leading professor of Ancient Sign Language, issued a warning about the discontinuation of the lipreading manual and the decline of ASL, highlighting the ramifications of succumbing to tech-dominant modes of communication. Dr Cogswell said: “Lipreading has always had a strong link to the culture of Oralism. The dismissal of the lipreading manual is, therefore, a win for the Deaf community – but by turning to technology rather than ASL, it signals another step toward eliminating Deaf Culture. Interestingly, the BSL (British Sign Language) sign for lipreading is not only the same sign as for Oralism, but also could be read as a forewarning of surveillance software. You see, it involves two fingers mimicking a pair of eyes and facing toward the signer’s face, moving in a circular motion against their lips.” She continues, “It’s uncanny really. Two fingers, eyes, and the connections to surveillance. It also points towards – or away from, rather – the power and dominance of hearing culture from the position of Deaf culture with a big ‘D’.” Dr Cogswell alludes to a growing fear that such technological innovations as ‘real-time lips’ form part of an insidious data gathering mission: using this form of communication could facilitate access to conversations in both the public and private domain and could further normalise personal physiological data capture through facial recognition technology without the willing consent from the participants involved.

It is feared by Deaf Communities and their advocates that the automation of lipreading will expedite the complete loss of ASL classes from the university system and decimate their rights to distinct languages that are empowering, expecting them instead to submit to the dominant hearing culture’s linguistic interpretations of the world. The Hearing Standards has taken steps towards adopting new strategies for early language acquisition in children. In the most recent funding cycle for new areas of research, the Department of Hearing Standards will be focusing on developing a mass language acquisition programme (MLAP) for all children. With their wider goal being universal education for all, the Hearing Standards is committed to developing ‘neutral’ languages, which it hopes will eradicate the need for specialist knowledge of ‘minority’ linguistic systems.

Up and down the country, there have been calls from Deaf activists and advocates to form separatist groups with the intention to strengthen and widen the use of ASL as the main means of communication for the deaf and hard of hearing. There are indications separatist groups have already succeeded in taking over some towns in the North. Officials from the Hearing Standards have condemned the formation of these communities as being unrealistic and instead support efforts to drive forward inclusive innovations such as ‘real-time lips’. Hannah Bark, a spokesperson for the bipartisan committee on inclusive education, has lauded the ongoing work of the Department of Hearing Standards. She stated, “It’s time to close the door on the legacy of Deaf culture. Preserving a culture of deafness only highlights our differences and doesn’t give society a chance to live in harmony. Disability and deafness no longer exist in our society.”

However, studies have shown that in comparison with the general population, strong correlations have been found between ASL and social and political identities among those who are Deaf, and for them, the erasure of difference would mean an erasure of self. The Union Against Oralism points out it was precisely these differences that provided the foundations for the new technologies that are on the market today. In the early days of machine learning, the Union suggested the engagement of multiple stakeholders from various backgrounds that would strengthen the ethics and design of new technologies. Dr Cogswell elaborated further: “Lipreading tech has been created based on the knowledge given by d/Deaf communities. They understood that facial expression provided machine learning with an accuracy that spoken speech alone could not provide engineers back then.” Mr Bell, the Department of Hearing Standards CEO, agreed: “Yes, we have learned a great deal from the legacy of Deaf Culture, but times have changed: we must scale up our approach to access and new technologies and be more inclusive.”

A future without disability and deafness is a troublesome prospect for Dr Cogswell and the Union, who have formed an alliance to protect the future of Deaf and disability culture. Together, they will apply for the United Nation’s heritage status to grant rights and protection for Ancient Sign Language. The discontinuation of the instruction manual for lipreading is not a loss for Dr Cogswell and the Union since the manual was at odds with the practice of Deaf Culture. The Union expands: “The manual was just another attempt to standardise language at the margins, and now the introduction of lipreading tech is a mass surveillance programme under the banner of inclusive design. What we really need is to build and design technologies that allow communities to flourish and protect the legacy of Deaf and disability culture.” The prospect of humans flourishing is a concept central to Dr Cogswell’s understanding of a sign belonging to American Sign Language: EYETH. In ASL, “EYETH” is a wordplay in English for “Earth,” which represents Deaf people living on the planet. The term is shorthand for “people of the eye”, a sign that can evoke the ethics of care and allows Deaf people to flourish in their communities, rather than mediating their lives through the adoption of new technologies.


Louise Hickman is an activist and scholar of communication, and uses ethnographic, archival, and theoretical approaches to consider how access is produced for disabled people.

Speech Sounds is at VISUAL Carlow from 22 May – 22 August 2022.