Local patent services the deaf
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
December 16, 2003
(December 16, 2003) - What began as a way to provide better service to his customers may be turning into a lucrative business for Ken Gan.
"I'm a customer service fanatic," he said. So Gan, who owns MAC'S II Automotive and Collision Service in Henrietta, wondered how to communicate with deaf customers in his store other than writing notes back and forth.
"We don't have anyone who signs," he said. "I realized there was nothing available for deaf and hearing face-to-face communication."
So he had some engineering friends come up with a solution: Interpretype, which he has patented. It's a simple concept, similar to sending an e-mail or an instant message, except the recipient is just a couple of feet away. Interpretype has a set of connected keyboards with screens; the typed messages appear on the screens.
In the year since the device's invention, Gan says, he has sold about 50 of the $1,995 sets to medical offices, airlines, Strong Memorial Hospital and government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. And he's had recent inquiries from the U.S. Postal Service in Philadelphia, where deaf postal clerks have to ask patrons whether there are any hazardous or fragile materials in the packages being mailed.
Wegmans Food Market on Hylan Drive in Henrietta uses Interpretype at its customer service desk and is contemplating buying another set for its pharmacy, Gan said. Across the street from Wegmans, a bank uses Interpretype to reduce the time it takes for deaf customers to open an account or apply for a loan.
Ten of the sets have been sold to Rochester Institute of Technology. Two are in the college library, and campus safety officers frequently use Interpretype. About 1,200 deaf and hard-of-hearing students attend RIT and its National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
"This has really helped me to communicate easily," typed Joan Naturale, a librarian at RIT.
So when Perry Lassin, a Pennsylvania high school student visiting RIT, approached her recently to ask how to log on to library computers, Naturale told him she was deaf, asked if he would please type and pointed to the Interpretype keyboard. Naturale read what Lassin typed on a computer screen in front of her, then typed her reply.
"This is a cool idea. I like it," Lassin said.
Samuel Fefer, an RIT student from Auburn who asked Naturale a question via Interpretype, also liked the device.
"Quite frankly, it's fantastic," he said. "I'm thrilled to death. I wish I had this for other school activities."
Kelsey Burch also finds Interpretype handy when deaf patrons visit the library's circulation desk, where she works as a student supervisor.
"I've taken some sign classes but I'm kind of scared to start a conversation because my skills aren't too strong," she said.
That reaction, Gan said, is typical, especially from the hearing community. While researching the product, Gan learned quickly not to offend the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. He consulted with interpreters and deaf individuals and is quick to point out that Interpretype was designed and is being marketed as a tool to help hearing people, not an aid for the deaf.
The sets are sold with a booklet that trains hearing people on what to expect when interacting with deaf customers. "Just be yourself," it says. "Be warm, friendly and helpful just as you would be with any other customer." It tells them to avoid offensive terms such as "deaf and dumb" and even "hearing impaired." Instead, the terms "deaf" and "hard of hearing" are preferred. The booklet also reminds hearing people that English often is a second language for deaf individuals, and American Sign Language doesn't follow the same rules, so grammar and syntax may not be perfect.
But Interpretype is not meant as a replacement for interpreters, Gan said. "It's meant to fill the gaps when an interpreter is not available or not practical."
The need is so great that Gan hopes Interpretype will become as common as a TTY, or text telephone. He's already devoted a large room in his car shop to Interpretype. And he's attempting to have the device act as a translator, changing English to other languages.
"This easily can be a multimillion-dollar company," Gan said, with an optimistic goal of $3 million in sales in 2004. "That's what I'm hoping."