Communication software bridges gap for ASL users

Pierre Paul ’19 remembers the moment he knew his idea was going somewhere.

“Our team had been testing the device. The data for ‘Large coffee’ was input into the system, we pressed Enter, and we heard it verbalizing ‘Large coffee.’ And it was just a wow moment because we had been stuck and were ready to give up on this function for the night. But right then and there it worked, and it reenergized our passion to overcome any and all obstacles. 

“This was the night before the submission for the competition.”  

Paul’s creation — communication software that translates American Sign Language (ASL) into spoken language — is called “We Hear You.” The project earned his team first prize in the 2019 Social Impact Challenge sponsored by the Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The challenge is a competition for Bradley students to create innovative ideas for sustainable enterprises that will produce a positive impact on the well-being of communities, families or individuals.

One night last summer when he couldn’t sleep, Paul decided there must be a way to translate the hand gestures of ASL into spoken language — and back again— so that those with hearing exceptionalities can communicate with those who don’t use ASL. 

A political science major who minored in organizational communication, Paul knew he needed technical help to accomplish the project. When he learned about the university’s Data Science Club, he reached out to the members and they agreed to be his core team. In addition to data science students, Paul worked with MBA graduate Bethanie Couri ’19 and the university’s ASL Club to refine the app, and asked graphic designer Ann Schnabel ’19 to create a striking logo.  

Paul and the team are also consulting with several groups of deaf students to get feedback on the app’s usability. “After all,” he said, “We need to make sure the product we’re developing is best for the (deaf) community, and others with hearing exceptionalities who utilize ASL.” 

The device has also been entered into The Big Idea’s Competition, another Turner School competition which will begin in February, and in contests at universities around the country. This spring, Paul began a master’s program at Bradley in nonprofit leadership while serving as a residence hall director. 

“We Hear You” is being readied for testing this spring at The Spot, a coffee shop in north Peoria. Owner Sara Skolaski ’05 said the communication device fits in well with her shop’s mission. “I have a heart for children and people with disabilities because I was a special education teacher,” she said. 

Skolaski met Paul when a group of Bradley residence hall directors came into the shop to talk with her about entrepreneurship. Afterward, she asked the students what they were passionate about. When Paul described the communication device, she encouraged him to keep working on it. 

She knew the device would fill a need. 

“We’ve had a handful of customers with hearing difficulties come in (to the shop),” she said. “It’s been a little bit hard for them when they’re ordering because I don’t have anyone on staff who knows sign language. It’s caused some frustration for these folks. 

“I’ve also had some people come through the drive-through with someone to translate for them. It’ll be great to empower them to feel like they could go on their own, because (the device) will be there.”

— Mary Brolley

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