Mel Chua talks about speech input and captions as a Deaf individual

Mel Chua tells us that the onus shouldn’t be on her to request accessibility accommodations – it should be there from the start. And she shouldn’t be made to feel as if providing accommodations is something generous the service provider is doing.


Thanks to Tenon for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

ASL Version

Mel and I agreed that it would be a good idea to provide this show in ASL as well. Mel was good enough to use the transcript to re-enact our conversation in ASL.


Nic: Hi, I’m Nic Steenhout. You’re listening to the Accessibility Rules Soundbite, a series of short podcasts where people with disabilities explain their impairments and what barriers they encounter on the web. Thanks to Tenon for sponsoring the transcript for this episode. Tenon provide accessibility as a service. They offer testing, training, and tooling to help fix accessibility fast.

Nic: Today I’m speaking with Mel Chua. Mel is working in the technology field. She describes herself as a hacker. Welcome on the show, Mel.

Mel: Thank you for having me. For those of you who are listening to the audio version, one thing you might notice is that my voice is gonna come at a bit of delay in the questions, and the reason for that is that I’m Deaf and I’m getting the call through American Sign Language interpreter, and then I’m using my voice to speak back but we’re also going to be making a signed version of this at the conclusion of the recording. What else do you want to know?

Nic: You mentioned you’re Deaf, can you tell us a little bit more about how your disability or your impairment … How does that work on the web? What kind of barriers do you encounter?

Mel: Well, so yeah. So expanding on that a little bit, I’m Deaf. I grew up Deaf. I also happen to be one of the Deaf people for whom speech therapy and cochlear implants and hearing aids have worked out. That’s not everybody. They’re not magic. And whether you can use your voice or not has no bearing on how intelligent you are, how educated you are, anything like that. But what that meant for me is that there’s something that I can only do in one direction on the web. So for instance, like this, I can use my voice to speak, but I can’t use my ears to listen. So audio input doesn’t really work, even if speech output does. Also things like speech recognition tend to not work very well with Deaf voices like mine. I have a different kind of resonant quality to my voice, typically more nasal because that’s something that a lot of folks will do. You speak further back in your skull so you can feel your voice instead of hearing it. It give you more tactile feedback. And then I’ll drop consonants and randomly mispronounce things because I’ll read words, but I’ve never heard them said. So that kind of thing makes the growing trend towards speech recognition very difficult to use because I basically can’t get Alexa or anything to understand what I’m saying.

Mel: Then of course there’s stuff like captions and podcasts. So it’s a little bit weird to be on a podcast right now because I don’t listen to them. I basically can’t. Very, very, very few podcasts have transcripts and other things that make them accessible to folks like me with hearing loss. I also do a lot of my work in ASL, American Sign Language. So I’m based in the US and so that’s the sign language that I’m most fluent in. Other countries, other people around the world perhaps have different kinds of sign language. But very little content is available in sign language in general. And so for someone like me who’s also fluent in English, transcripts or captions, it’s actually okay because I’m a native reader of English, I can follow along just fine. But especially imagine you were a Deaf kid and you’re still learning to read. Like the captions are not going to be a very workable tool for you and following along that cool YouTube cartoon that your brother has found.

Mel: So those are a couple of things that make life more challenging. Another one that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily think about is notification sounds on websites and apps and different technologies. I don’t know if something is making a beeping noise until I walk into the cafeteria and my coworkers go “Oh, Mel. Your thing is on. It’s very loud.” And so I don’t have a way to visually know that there’s some kind of notification or to turn it off or turn the volume or something. I will one, annoy people around me, which sometimes that’s okay. They get to deal with that. But if there’s only an auditory notification and there’s not some kind of tactile or visual option, I might miss a notification entirely. So in the physical world that’s things like I can’t hear doorbells when they ring. And so I use flashing lights. But when you’re talking about computer programs and applications, similarly, usually there’s some sort of option to have pop-ups so the screens flashing or whatnot, but that kind of setting is really important for me. And in terms of those options when I’m setting up a new piece of software, how I need to get that data instead of beep, beep, beep, whatever.

Nic: That makes sense. Thank you. Can you tell us more about the difference between English and ASL? Because I think most people that listen to my show would not understand what the differences are because for a lot of us, sign language, it’s just basically sign language. But there is a significant difference. Can you tell us a little bit more about how we can make text easier to access for speaker of ASL as a first language?

Mel: Absolutely. Yeah. So I should start out by saying I am not a native signer. Like many Deaf people, I grew up with what we call the oral method, which is a focus on spoken language only because, and this is probably a theme in ableism in general, there’s a notion that hearing is better than not hearing, or speaking is better than signing. So they were trying to make me as normal as possible. So I grew up that way and then I learned to sign later on as a grad student. And so that definitely affects my perspective. And if you interviewed other Deaf people, either someone who didn’t know how to sign and didn’t use sign language, or someone who has grown up using it and that’s their native language, you get very different perspectives on that.

Mel: But what you asked about the difference between English and ASL, so might sound silly but one misconception a lot of people have about sign language is that it’s universal. It’s not. But American Sign Language is American and there’s Chinese Sign Language an French Sign Language, Mexican Sign Language, just like there is Spanish and Mandarin and English, right? It’s a language made by a particular community and culture, in a particular time and space. The second thing is ASL and English as you alluded to are completely different languages. They’ve got different grammar, different vocabularies, different idioms and it’s interesting because people think that signing is just taking the words in English and then putting them on your hands. And actually, if you saw me in a work setting in a technical setting, I would be signing in a way that is make that statement closer to truth. It’s not exactly true, but it’s closer to true. And the reason is that there is a spectrum of ways that you can use the sign from American Sign Language.

Mel: So on the one hand you can take full advantage of this being a visible and visual language and basically have this cinematic fallout full-out movie going on with characters running across the set and zooming out like a camera. It’s really cool to be able to do things that way. And the word order is different than in English as well. Or For instance, one thing I think is really cool about ASL is the pronouns are gender neutral by default. And so if I’m indicating when I’m talking, maybe he, she, they, et cetera, in English, I have to spell out the pronouns every time. But in technical world, I’m a research fellow in biomedical engineering department. I’m going to be a post-doc pretty soon, but I haven’t quite completely completed the doc yet. So still a researcher. I’m working with interpreters and we’re talking about pretty complicated, technical research stuff and there haven’t been a lot of deaf people doing that sort of work yet because the ADA is younger than I am. It’s less than 30 years old and so there’s not a generation of people who have been able to with access to education is at the most my age. And I’m 32. I was in preschool when those laws were passed. So I’m literally the oldest person to have grown up with interpreter access to my education in a public school in America.

Mel: And so because of that, there aren’t a whole lot of signs for specialized technical students subjects. So I am the, as far as anyone can tell, I am the first and only Deaf signing person in my field, which means that I’m just making up vocabulary a lot on the fly while trying to learn stuff myself. And all that means is because the entire field literally is being done in spoken English, the way I sign so that interpreters can accurately render me into spoken English is much closer to the English. And so if you are … And also if you are a hearing person or a new signer and you’re signing with deaf people, they would typically modify the way they’re signing to be closer to English grammar, so it’s easier for you to follow.

Mel: And so you see more of an English signing style in those situations, which I think might lead some people to think “Oh, well, it’s English but you use your hands instead of your mouth.” But they’re actually two completely different languages. It’s really, really cool to actually sign about technical stuff without other Deaf engineers because we have to figure out what it means to use our preferred language, our preferred modality and talk about things in our field and most of the time we have to step back and think and go “We’ve never done this before. We’ve never talked about our own field in our own language because we’re the only ones in our company, in our department, in our office.”

Nic: That’s a very good point.

Mel: Yeah.

Nic: I’d like to ask you one last question and that’s really, what is the one thing you would like web developers and web designers to remember about accessibility?

Mel: So I’ve been thinking about how I want to answer this question and I think I’d like to ask them to consider the assumptions they’re making about what it means for us to be interested in something. One of the responses that I get a lot when I ask can something be transcribed or can something be captioned is this attitude that it is somehow either my job to make stuff accessible to me, whether that’s “Well, you’ve got a cochlear implant. Can’t you listen to it?” And maybe I can, but I’m going to miss half of it and it’s really hard and there’s lots of other people who can’t do that and they might want to listen to your thing too. Or even beyond that, that it’s my job to request, that it’s my job to find something and then it’s this wonderful, generous favor that’s been made to allow me to have access to your thing by providing a transcript of it several days later, or several weeks later, however long it takes to do that.

Mel: And that’s not the same as equal access and the reason why is because that when I was in undergrad, in college, my friends were laughing about that video in the dorm that night. I want to know what they’re talking about, I want to know what they’re laughing about, I want to be part of that discussion. If I had to wait a week to get the joke, it’s not the same joke.

Nic: Yeah.

Mel: And so instead of assuming folks are interested, right, it’s that extra barrier and then you have to take the extra step of going “Well, is this worth it? Will they think I’m annoying?” And so if you can just make things accessible by default, and that’s probably a recurring theme of folks you’ve interviewed, I’m guessing. Just make it accessible by default. Assume we’re going to show up and we will show up.

Nic: Wonderful. Thank you. That’s actually very powerful. Thanks, Mel. I will put this together and publish it and I think my listeners will find it very interesting. Thank you for your time.

Mel: Thank you for having me. This has been fun.

Nic: That’s it for now. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this Accessibility Soundbite, please pass the word. Share it wide and large.