Isy Mead, former Learning Manager at the Museum, talks about the development of an exciting new smartphone app for deaf visitors called Signly
“It all began way back in July 2013, when we were approached by Kirsty Crombie-Smith, Operations Director of a charity called Deafax. She was hugely enthusiastic about the Museum and its interactive, hands-on activities. She could see that we were open to developing offers for new audiences, but at that point were only thinking in terms of new age groups. She then arranged to meet us to show us a demo of a new app for deaf visitors that Deafax had been developing.
The minute we saw it, we were wowed. A smartphone is held up to a sticker in the Museum. The app recognises the image on the sticker and within seconds a lively interpreter pops up and starts to sign the audio-visual material. It looked amazing, and something that should have been invented years ago: a resource that allows deaf visitors to look around the Museum independently and access the same, full information as a hearing visitor.
Our first playing-devil’s-advocate point was ‘but we already have all our audio-visual material written on the panels’ - the implication being that deaf visitors would be able to read the information, thus not be disadvantaged by not being able to hear the recordings. However, we learned from Kirsty how levels of literacy in written English amongst deaf people are much lower than amongst hearing people. Which make sense: if you cannot hear how a word is pronounced, there will be many more challenges to learning to read in one’s head.
Over the next year, we worked with Deafax on the creation of the app. Working with the Visitor Services team and Learning team, we identified key points of interest throughout the Museum, and the information to be given at these specific places. We then wrote and developed scripts together, which Deafax prepared for signing interpretation.
In October 2014, we reached the filming stage. Members working with Deafax signed the scripts and then Deafax went away and did something magic to create all the app tab stickers. In February 2015, we stuck these app tabs around the Museum in the appropriate places. Holding a smartphone to these tabs triggered the signing interpretation.
In June 2015 the first pilot session of the app for deaf visitors took place. Students from the Penn School, Beaconsfield, joined us, not only to test the app, but also for a literacy session. I led the session with an interpreter, which was a really interesting experience for me. I was in awe of her skills and wished I had them too….
The main feedback from the pilot was: not enough! The students loved the app but we had only created scripts for four places throughout the Museum – one in each gallery, in fact. They wanted shorter, sharper bits of information to be divided up across a greater number of spaces.
So more filming took place in August 2015 and more magic little stickers placed in many more places around the Museum. Now we really feel like we are a Museum ready to welcome deaf visitors with an inclusive, unique and imaginative app. It’s been a wonderful experience and we are really looking forward to the next stage. Not just for our little Museum, but for a world in which Signly will be the norm in museums, shops, airports, hospitals, theme parks – everywhere.”
Signly was recently featured on BBC South Today, BBC London, BBC Breakfast and the BBC News Channel. Have a look at the coverage here.