Empowering deaf individuals to experience the auditory world through the sense of touch

Have you ever had the opportunity of engaging in a conversation with someone who is both deaf and blind?

Chances are you haven’t. It's not a common occurrence in most people's lives. But have you ever wondered how such an interaction might unfold? I was fortunate enough to have a unique and transformative experience when I had the opportunity to interact with two individuals who were deaf-blind at the Apuväline 2023 event. This is the Assistive Technology Exhibition that is held in Finland every two years and hosts companies from Finland and abroad that operate in a variety of domains, such as mobility, communication, prosthetics, and orthotics etc.

In Apuväline, I represented our company, IREROBOT LTD, and I was joined by our collaborator, Katerina Yiannopoulou, who had traveled all the way from Denmark to meet me in the chilly city of Tampere. Our mission at the event was to promote our novel product, ACETT, which stands for Auditory Communication Enhancement Through Touch. ACETT is designed to empower deaf individuals to experience the auditory world through the sense of touch.

In our daily lives, we are constantly surrounded by a multitude of acoustic events, from the sounds of the city, like passing cars, to the voices of our loved ones, and even the soothing sounds of nature, such as birdsong, flowing water, and rustling leaves in the wind. These experiences are not merely about receiving information but also about immersing ourselves in the physical world through our senses. Shockingly, the World Health Organization reports that a staggering 1.5 billion people are either fully or partially isolated from this acoustic realm, with nearly 430 million of them having some form of hearing impairment. While traditional approaches like lip-reading and sign language offer some assistance, their success is limited. Researchers suggest that even the most proficient lip-readers can only decipher about 30% of spoken words, and only a small percentage of hearing individuals are proficient in sign language.

Thankfully, modern technological advancements have given rise to devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, which have transformed the lives of millions. However, these solutions have their own limitations, including the reluctance of some deaf individuals or their parents to pursue implantation and technical challenges, such as operating in noisy environments. Furthermore, around 80% of disabled individuals reside in developing countries, where access to these modern technologies is often restricted.

This is where ACETT comes into play. With its innovative design and proprietary technology, ACETT creates a meaningful and enjoyable connection between the user and the auditory world through the sense of touch. ACETT can identify and categorise sounds, delivering their tactile representation to the user's hand. This includes vowel phonemes, the sounds of passing cars, the rhythm of a song, and various nature sounds—all of which have been identified by our advanced algorithm. Ongoing clinical studies aim to substantiate these promises, and our incredible beta-testers have rigorously evaluated ACETT during User-Driven-Design approaches at various stages of the development.

During Apuväline 2023, I had the privilege of engaging with hearing professionals, deaf individuals, entrepreneurs, and many others. These interactions led to valuable connections which can help ensuring that ACETT reaches those who need it most in Finland once the product is launched. Overall, the feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive, reinforcing our belief that ACETT can be beneficial not only for young adults with deafness but also for those who successfully utilise conventional technologies.

Among the booth visitors, two individuals left a profound impact on me. These remarkable individuals had been deaf-blind since birth, a scenario I had occasionally envisioned during my involvement with the deaf community and interactions with disabled individuals in general. However, my actual interaction with them was quite different from what I had expected.

Despite their inability to hear and the inability to speak, which in fact arises due to lack of listening experience, these individuals were incredibly communicative. They expressed themselves through their escorts, who continuously interacted with them using tactile communication, primarily through their fingers. Initially, I found myself a bit disoriented, blurting out phrases like, "Tell her that..." or "Ask her if..." But soon enough, I realised that their escorts were their voices, and I needed to address them directly. It was a natural transformation, and I quickly forgot that I was not hearing their own voices. I conversed with them as if they were there independently, without the need for an intermediary. This shift was both remarkable and enlightening.

Our discussions were lively and fast-paced. These individuals had strong opinions about the device they had tested, providing us with invaluable feedback. While I believe that ACETT has the potential of assisting deaf-blind individuals, I acknowledge that it's not a straightforward solution. Deaf individuals can observe people speaking, read written words, and form mental images of sounds and spoken words. ACETT's vibrations hold meaning to them. However, for deaf-blind individuals, these vibrations are not inherently connected to anything they can see or experience. This presents a significant challenge—determining whether they can establish connections between these vibrations and the context surrounding them. It's a complex task, as one of the deaf-blind individuals I spoke with candidly stated, "It's interesting, but I can't say for sure if it's right for me". The second person reported that the device can in fact be useful for her after testing it thoroughly throughout our conversation.

In conclusion, my participation in Apuväline 2023 has equipped me with valuable insights that can enhance the strategic focus of IREROBOT LTD. More importantly, it has inspired us to continue refining our design to positively impact the integration of deaf individuals into the auditory world. Additionally, I've made a personal commitment to never forget the most important lesson I learned: If individuals who lack two of the most vital senses—sight and hearing—can achieve a level of intellectual ability surpassing that of the average person, complete their studies, socialise, and find happiness, then there are no excuses for me as long as I wake up every day with all of my senses intact.

Evagoras Xydas, Chief Executive Officer, IREROBOT

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