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Virtual Pharmacist App For The Deaf

UWC App Provides Virtual Pharmacist For Deaf People

When most people go to the pharmacy to collect their medication, they are able to talk to the pharmacist, ask questions about their medication, and read the printed directions on the product label. But this is unfortunately not the case for many Deaf people.

Professor Bill Tucker, Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), 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.

Seeking a solution that would allow Deaf people to independently access information about their prescribed medication, Prof Tucker, together with doctoral students Prangnat Chininthorn, Mariam Parker and Andre Henney, and several other postgraduate students, developed an app suite for mobile phones that provides Deaf people with the information they need about their illness and medication - in sign language.

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), which cater for a range of medical needs, are loaded onto phones and can be accessed via the app. The apps can be accessed on mid-range phones costing about R1 300.

“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 somewhat 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.”

“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,” adds Prof Tucker. “Then we handed all this work to computer scientists who coded the mobile app.”

Another challenge: clearing up misunderstandings. This requires a call centre staffed by trained and certified SASL interpreters to provide remote video interpreting.

“We aim it at the lowest-end phone that has a front-facing camera, so when Deaf people have questions, they can connect to a remote interpreter to clarify information.”

However, unlike using SignSupport, video relay, with video running in both directions from a phone, would be very expensive, unless subsidised by a mobile operator.

Having worked with the Deaf community since 2001, and on the app since 2010, the team feels the app suite, including SignSupport for Pharmacy, an authoring tool to create additional scenarios, and a mobile video relay, is ready to be handed to an organisation to take further - ideally, an organisation owned and run by Deaf people.

According to the researchers, DeafSA estimated that there were about 600 000 Deaf South Africans in 2006 - a number that’s only grown since then. Despite this huge market, getting the government to buy into the concept has been difficult. SASL is still not an official language in SA.

“We have had meetings with the government, which went well - but then nothing happened,” says Prof Tucker. “What we need is to form an organisation that will take ownership of this project. This needs to somehow be commercialised, even if for free - which is how I would like to see it.”

Prof Tucker says the app was not intended for all people with hearing loss, but rather for a specific segment of that community.

“Deaf - with a capital ‘D’ - denotes people who primarily use sign language as their mother tongue and as their identity. Cultural identity is attached to your language.

“With a lower case ‘d’, deaf people 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.

“Our target audience is ‘Deaf’ people, for whom SASL is a sense of identity and community. For instance, children of Deaf parents might be able to hear, but their first language is sign language. They would also call themselves Deaf even though they can hear - as that is the language they use,” says Prof Tucker.