This is the first in my series of posts spotlighting underrepresented communities around the world and the entrepreneurs trying to help them. In this first installment, I examine a service making life easier for deaf people.
From a young age, Thibault Duchemin noticed a divide between his deaf family members and the rest of the world. Since they couldn't hear, he often noticed that they tended to communicate solely with each other. As a hearing person born into an entirely deaf family, he found himself always serving as mediator.
"Being a hearing kid in a deaf family, you end up normally going to a doctor with your family, answering phone calls from telemarketers, and always being this bond between society and other human people around you and the deaf people around you," says Duchemin.
This ongoing predicament just didn't feel right. The entrepreneur found himself constantly in the middle of conversations where deaf people kept getting "left behind." He noticed that for deaf people, life constantly felt like traveling in a country where everyone speaks a different language. He vowed to change this.
Bringing Hope to a Neglected Community
Duchemin saw how the entire deaf community worldwide has been affected by this disenfranchisement. The deaf world needed a tool to help it understand the hearing world better in real time. He came up with an idea that could empower people who had long felt neglected.
"No matter if you're deaf, culturally deaf, hard of hearing or you're a senior, every person with hearing loss which is higher than 40 decibels starts having problems just following conversations," Duchemin says. "Face-to-face works because you're slow enough in your feedback. But in groups all the dynamics change. Try to follow somebody, and then somebody else starts speaking. You lose those visual cues, and you end up being lost all the time."
Along with his co-founders Skinner Cheng and Pieter Doevendans, Duchemin founded Ava, an app that provides real-time captions while people talk. The app records and transcribes spoken words in real time and pairs smartphones in any group, with the captions identifying speakers by their corresponding devices.
Short for Audio Visual Accessibility, Ava requires every member of a conversation to have the app on their own smartphones. The app recognizes the audio and then tags and color codes participants in the discussion, letting the deaf person know which person is speaking the words being captioned.
Powering Daily Interactions
The deaf and hard of hearing community is 400 million people strong. In addition to those who were born deaf or lost their hearing at a young age, there are the many seniors who have now suffered dramatic hearing loss. Duchemin has found that an inability to hear can affect everything from time spent with family to job interviews.
"You think about your possibilities of interaction in a much smaller way," says Duchemin, pointing out that professional captioners charge on average $120 an hour. "You say, 'Okay. I'm going to pay or request an interpreter or captioner to come to this very important meeting or this job interview.' But when you're inside of a company, you get a job, then it's really also delicate for you to negotiate this kind of budget."
Since Ava works in real time, a deaf user can type something and have it appear on the screens of every device connected to the conversation. There's no delay, so the discussion can continue uninterrupted, whether it's taking place in a conference room or across the table at Starbucks. The deaf person can also have the phone translate the text as a voice, choosing either a male or female voice to represent them in the conversation.
Putting It to Use
Duchemin and Cheng aren't just founders. They use the product every day. Cheng is deaf and non-verbal, which means that Ava is the perfect tool to facilitate conversations in the office for him. From meetings to one-on-one conversations, Ava's team sets their devices in front of them and lets the app handle captioning.
"The world is not completely fluent in sign language yet, so that's why we want to use Ava as a way to be the English (in a conversation)," Duchemin says. "Both sides may not speak the same language, but they can use a way to still understand each other, to communicate, and maybe to get in a relationship where afterwards one is going to learn the language of the other."
While Ava is available in both the app store and the Google Play store today, customers have to be invited to participate. In September, the app will launch using information gathered from a beta version released last September. The good news is, users can get an invite by merely answering a few questions about how they'd like to use Ava. So far, Duchemin has found enthusiastic support for his app.
"I think what really matters is that we found investors, we found users who believe in the fact that Ava can literally change the life of people," Duchemin says. "It's like taking them back some independence and autonomy by not having always to rely on this idea of a crazy cost per person and an interpreter that follows you all the time. You just want to date, you want to go in a bar with friends, or lunch in a restaurant, and all of this should be accessible. We believe it's beautiful, those moments."