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2 March 2020
Sign Support: Apps That Help The Deaf Be Heard

(Published - 2 March 2020)

Prolific deafblind American author and activist Helen Keller said: “Blindness separates people from things; deafness separates people from people.” 

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is working hard to prevent the Deaf community from being isolated through its SignSupport app.

“We all use technology to adapt our world to our needs,” explains SignSupport Project Manager Hugo Vaughan. “Smartphones are revolutionising the way we communicate, and SignSupport intends to tailor the ICT user experience to the specific needs of Deaf users.” 

An affordable and accessible mobile app suite to facilitate information and communication services, SignSupport was designed for - and with - Deaf people. It uses pre-recorded videos in South African Sign Language (SASL) to help them understand and communicate instructions for different scenarios such as emergency medical situations. 

SignSupport’s app suite also includes an authoring tool to create additional scenarios, and a mobile video relay.  Furthermore, an app can redirect to a SignSupport call centre staffed by trained Deaf interpreters to provide remote video interpreting. Deaf interpreters are crucial as they increase employment opportunities for Deaf people.

The contact centre handles text, voice, pictures and video as messages, and can connect two Deaf signers in  real-time. All communications can be zero-rated and back-billed to save Deaf people money. 


One of the problems the team has had to overcome was the many variations of SASL.

“SASL is very rich - meaning relies on gesture, speed, force, body language, facial expressions,” Project Leader Bill Tucker, Associate Professor in Computer Science at UWC and Head of the Bridging Application and Network Gaps (BANG) Group says. “Moreover, SASL dialects can be very locally dependent, and it’s hard to get all that across - but our partners have been extremely helpful with that.”

DeafSA estimates that about 10% of South Africans are deaf - in other words, they suffer from significant hearing loss, but are still likely able to lip read, talk and use a hearing aid. A further 10% of those are Deaf with a capital ‘D’ - denoting people who primarily use sign language as their mother tongue and as their identity. That means there are somewhere between 500 000 to 1-million people who use SASL,  and tens of millions of South Africans who do not understand it at all. 

“Our target audience is ‘Deaf’ people, for whom SASL is a sense of identity and community,” Prof. Tucker notes. “We believe Deaf people know best about their communication problems, and also have the best ideas for solutions.”

The SignSupport team has been working with numerous Deaf organisations in the Western Cape since 2001, including DeafSA, Deaf Community of Cape Town (DCCT) and the National Institute for the Deaf (NID) in Worcester. These organisations sit on a steering committee for the project.

“SignSupport design is Deaf-led,” Vaughan says. “Good design methodology relies on the intended users of a solution - in this case Deaf people - to specify what they expect the technology should enable for them. And we are in awe of the individuals who have provided feedback over the years, and their clarity of vision as to what they need to communicate in their primary language.”

Having worked on the app since 2008, the team feels it is ready for the marketplace.

“SignSupport, with its two decades of working with Deaf people, has designed, tested and implemented ways to use technologies both as a way to deliver knowledge content in Sign Language, and provide a scalable contact centre where Sign Language users can interact with a help desk in their preferred communication form, Signing,” says Vaughan.

But SignSupport’s mission is far from over. 

SignSupport wishes to enable universal access to content by enabling delivered videos to play sound and subtitles (or not) in a language selected by the content viewer. The team also intends to continuously rebuild the current Emergency Services mobile app to ensure the best possible reliability, and as with every app, keep improving the user interface and user experience. 

 “Our goal is to spin off the research with technology transfer mechanisms,” Vaughan says. “The overarching idea is that Deaf people provide governance of the ecosystem to ensure that Deaf needs come first.

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