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24 January 2019
​Virtual pharmacist app for the Deaf
Researchers at UWC have developed an app suite for mobile phones that provides Deaf people with the means to discuss their medication needs with a pharmacist – in sign language.

Deaf, with a capital ‘D’, denotes people who primarily use sign language as their mother tongue and as their identity, including hearing children of Deaf parents.

According to Bill Tucker, Associate Professor in Computer Science at UWC, “deaf people, with a lower case ‘d’, are usually older people who suffer from hearing loss and can communicate with hearing people as they have been reading, writing, speaking and hearing all their lives. These ‘deaf’ people are more likely to be able to lip read, talk and use a hearing aid.

Prof Tucker says many Deaf people are textually illiterate, and are primarily literate in sign language. Unable to discuss their needs with the pharmacist, disadvantaged Deaf people tend to merely collect their medicines and rely on family and friends to advise them on how to take them.

Prof Tucker, together with doctoral students Prangnat Chininthorn, Mariam Parker and Andre Henney, and several postgraduate students, developed the app suite.
The main app, a video application for mobile phones dubbed ‘SignSupport for Pharmacy’, was developed in consultation with Deaf people as well as pharmacists and other experts.

Pre-recorded videos in South African Sign Language (SASL) that cover a range of medical needs are loaded onto mid-range phones costing about R1 300 and can be accessed via the app.

“Once they are on the phone it doesn’t cost the end user anything. That’s key for us as we are dealing with disadvantaged poor people,” says Henney.

One of the problems the team had to overcome was that there are many variations of SASL, much like different dialects of English, but less extreme.

“Even though there are multiple dialects [of SASL], there’s still a lot of commonality among Deaf people,” Chininthorn explains. “It is possible for good signers to sign in a way that more people can understand, for instance in a video.”

Prof Tucker says, “We had an industrial engineer work with Deaf people to get their input, and a PhD student in Pharmacy who made sure everything adhered to proper pharmacy protocols. Then we handed all this work to computer scientists who coded the mobile app.”

Using the front-facing camera on their phones, Deaf people can clarify information in the videos by accessing a call centre staffed by trained and certified SASL interpreters.

The app suite includes SignSupport for Pharmacy, an authoring tool to create additional scenarios and a mobile video relay. Having worked on the app since 2010, the team feels it is ready to be handed to an organisation, ideally owned and run by Deaf people, to be commercialised.

The potential market is huge, with DeafSA estimating a Deaf population of 600 000 South Africans in 2006.