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January 2, 2018 > Tech solution benefits deaf and speech impaired

Tech solution benefits deaf and speech impaired

By Victor Carvellas

In September of 2017, a mountain lion chased two deer onto the athletic field of the California School for the Deaf (CSD). An unusual occurrence to be sure, but a potentially dangerous one for anyone considering going outside. In an institution where audible alerts are of little use, how best to warn members of the danger and to stay indoors?

Believe it or not, up until just a few years ago, the answer would be to send a runner to each CSD classroom and convey the news via American Sign Language (ASL). Obviously, thatÕs an inefficient system that puts one or more individuals at risk. In the case of more serious threats such as an armed intruder, the potential for disaster is huge.

ÒOne time, a few years ago,Ó says CSDÕs Dean of Students, Ethan Bernstein, Òa guy was shooting up into the air with a gun down at the corner, and Fremont PD came here and said we should shelter in place. We had no real electronic communication thenÑpeople had to walk to each building and inform them to shelter in place, which is a sketchy solution to be sure.Ó

In 2014, CSD sought a partner to develop an emergency alert system for the school. Ultimately, the video relay service provider, Convo, agreed to work with CSD, and during the summer of 2015, Convo engineers and designers developed an alert system from the ground up.

ÒThis wasnÕt an off-the-shelf product,Ó says Bernstein, ÒConvo and CSD worked together to develop it. It had never been done before. This school was a pilot, but the system is now being implemented in other deaf schools. It was a pilot and now itÕs a model.Ó

The ConvoAnnounce system that resulted from the collaboration puts a large video screen in every classroom, office, and dorm room at the school. Not only is it good for signed announcements and public address situations, it uses flashing red screens and large block text announcements that indicate the type of danger, whether the school is in lockdown, whether evacuation is necessary, and much more. Any staff supervisor can access the system from any screen to deliver a preset announcement or create a new one to fit the situation.

Most hearing people have probably not heard of a Video Relay System (VRS) of the kind that Convo operates. A VRS allows deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired people to use a video terminal to use sign language, which an interpreter then communicates verbally with the hearing party. Convo was in a unique position to provide a solution, not only because of its experience as a VRS, but also because it is a deaf-owned and signing-centric company. As brand coordinator Leila Hanaumi explains, ÒWho knows the deaf community and its challenges better than people who live the experience everyday?Ó

Convo develops its technology based on the core concept of the deaf Òecosystem.Ó That is, in any natural system, individuals, populations, and communities benefit from existing mechanisms of resource procurement and usage. For the deaf, hard of hearing, and speech impaired people that Convo serves, an environmentÑan ecosystemÑthat helps those people as individuals, populations, and communities find resources, find each other, and find fulfillment, best assists its constituents in being self-reliant. ÒWe know firsthand what a positive deaf ecosystem can do for our community,Ó says Hanaumi, ÒIt creates opportunities, increases choices, encourages collaboration, and fosters connection.Ó

In that vein, the company has recently introduced an app (for iOS and Android) that not only makes it easy for signers to communicate with each other and to the hearing via VRS, but also provides videomail and an extensive directory of deaf-owned and deaf-friendly services. As Hanaumi says, Òwhat makes this directory so specialÑand there have been other efforts to do the same thingÑis that we consider regular maintenance and updating of it part of our job description.Ó

Another of ConvoÕs success stories is Mozzeria, a deaf-owned pizzeria belonging to Melody and Russ Stein in San Francisco. Even though they used an online reservation service, people were calling the restaurant, and the VRS and visual alert system in place wasnÕt working wellÑ50 percent of calls were lost.

In response, Convo developed Convo Lights. The alert system uses Philips Hue LED colored lights placed strategically throughout out the store along the ceiling, under the shelving, by the oven, and in the kitchen to signal when call is coming in, or, has been missed. Not only did MozzeriaÕs answered-call rate shoot to 95 percent, the overall effect is visually appealing as well.

Looking back, an emergency alert system for the deaf seems pretty common sense. But as Hanaumi explains, ÒPrior to [ConvoAnnounce] there just wasnÕt enough of a market out there to foster the development of technology.Ó

ÒIf you look at the history of technology,Ó she continues, Òit always is based on auditory cultureÑAlexa and Siri, for exampleÑso there is a barrier to the deaf communityÕs access to those technologies. Then, a company like ours invents a sort of equivalent tech before the next round of innovation and equivalency development begins again.Ó

In 2009, Convo was a start-up with less than 10 employees. Today, it is one of the largest deaf-owned companies in the world with around 250 employees. The companyÕs success represents the unique alchemy that occurs when a company and its clients share both a similar culture and a Òcan-doÓ attitude.

Incidentally, the mountain lion was never found and the deer, presumably are still living peacefully somewhere in the foothills of Fremont.

For more information, contact (510) 629-5622,, or visit

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