Before she started her own company, Jane Jonas, 30, was the only deaf person working in a downtown Washington D.C. office with 50 other employees.
She was able to get by, but it was very lonely.
“One day, the CEO came up to me and was getting upset because he had noticed that I was always on IM programs,” Jonas said. “He didn’t realize that the IM programs had text relay phone call capability, and I was making phone calls to write stories for their website. He thought I was goofing off.”
Now the proud owner of a digital design studio called Eyeth Studios, she uses a video messaging app called Glide to communicate with her employees, both one-on-one and as a group. The app allows them to send video messages to one another using American Sign Language, which can either be streamed live or, unlike other video chatting tools like Skype or FaceTime, opened at the user’s convenience, just like an email or text that waits until you’re ready to view it.
“It’s easy for us to have group chats to discuss projects, and talk one-on-one to clarify things,” she said.
Because English is not usually the first language of someone who is deaf—sign language is—texting is often not an option for those who are hearing impaired. The grammar, syntax and sentence structure is altogether different than spoken English.
“A text or email from someone whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL) won’t read like a normal English sentence,” said Chaim Haas, communications director for Glide. “Whereas we might say, ‘The girl throws the dog a bone,’ someone who is deaf might sign, ‘Girl —Dog Bone — Throw.
Essentially, asking someone who is deaf to ‘just text’ is actually taking them out of their comfort zone of communicating visually, and because ASL is a very visual language, the expressive component of it is incredibly important to see.
“Facial expression is like our equivalent of vocal tone. When you see a person signing on a video, you can pick up on those queues and nuances,” said Claude Stout, Executive Director of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. “Body language and facial expression are important. It’s just like vocal inflection, giving you the ability to tell if someone is happy or sad.”
And, because ASL is only one form of sign language—there are hundreds that exist—the app also provides written and video messaging facilitation.
Anyone who has sent a video message knows how much battery life and memory they can take up, which is why, statistically, data usage is higher among those who can’t communicate verbally. Fortunately, all of Glide’s messages are stored on the app’s secure private cloud and don’t eat up space, and uses half of the “typical data” of the average video call. Plus, there’s a little icon that lets her know if she’s being watched live, which helps maintain the flow of conversation.
In total, 360 million people worldwide, and 4 million in the U.S. are either deaf or hearing impaired. Until recently, and only since 1964, the deaf and hearing impaired community has had to go through different types of phone messaging systems, which have their own sets of technical difficulties at times. Before that, there were no options except in-person meetings and letters.
Fortunately, a young 19-year-old girl from Israel named Sarah Snow decided that it was time for this community to enter into 2016 along with the rest of us.
After taking a job as a community manager for Glide, she learned ASL and started a movement that helps the global deaf community communicate just like everyone else does.
“It was during my volunteer service at a hospital that I realized just how many challenges deaf and hearing impaired people face when it comes to being able to communicate,” she said. “But that’s not usually something you think about unless you or someone you care about has a hearing impairment.”
Now 22-years-old and known by her alias “Sarah Glide,” she has become an icon in the deaf community, where millions of people eagerly await to watch every video she uploads. More than just a YouTube star, she is an advocate for deaf people everyone lobbying for things like higher-quality closed captioning and speaking at conferences around the world.
“Sarah hires deaf people within the community to work on her videos and other projects, with her,” said Julie Rems-Smario, President of the California Association of the Deaf. “She has learned what the heart of our cause is.”
While they may be well intentioned, Rems-Smario says, corporations often use “framing” that is insulting to the deaf community, which, among them, has earned the nickname “inspiration porn.”
“They exploit us by saying, ‘Oh, look at those poor deaf people, but look how they can be ‘fixed’ with their hearing aids and implants!’ In essence, they objectify us without recognizing us as a whole human being,” she said.
Snow says that, for her own part, she has worked to to understand the community’s needs and taken the time to get to know their culture in a way that most marketers have not. She will be the first to tell you that most YouTube videos don’t include closed captioning—only 25%, in fact.
That’s why she always captions her own videos, both on YouTube and Facebook.
Glide has also become an educational tool.
Kristin Saxon, Tammy Eckard and Lauren Sanders, three instructors teaching ASL at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, have been using Glide in their ASL courses to promote second language development. Last semester, students were assigned partners from other sections of the course and asked to practice using the target language and culturally appropriate practices while getting to know their “Sign Pals.” Students are also able to Glide their Professor to ask questions, get feedback and practice using ASL. This semester, they made some changes and decided to make “Glide Sign Teams” to increase student-led conversations, accountability and interactions.
The app has gained popularity among another young community: individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, who are sometimes non-verbal and have a limited ability to express themselves, depending on the extent of their motor deficits.
“While they aren’t deaf, they sometimes learn sign language to communicate in their family life,” Haas said.