Startup Spotlight: Abu Dhabi-Based Startup I Hear You Aims To Translate Sign Language Into Speech Or Text (And Vice-Versa)
From a sign language keyboard offering and a sign language educational platform to the aforementioned service of translating text and voice messages to sign language, I Hear You is looking to adopt a holistic business model.
A 2019 study by American nonprofit media organization NPR showed that untreated hearing loss is very often linked to loneliness and isolation, particularly for the elderly. Another 2014 study by UK-based charity organization Hearing Link highlighted that 68% of people with hearing loss or deafness sometimes felt isolated at their workplaces. Unfortunately, these emotions have only been exacerbated among the deaf community by a global pandemic that has forced social isolation and increased digital communications.
“Everyday innovations in communication alter our lives, connect people who are worlds apart, and help conquer distances; yet, we are still struggling to overcome differences,” says Eman Khamis, co-founder and Operation Manager of I Hear You, a digitally inclusive mobile application that aims to translate written and verbal communication to sign language and vice-versa. “I Hear You is a translator for sign language, through which everyone can communicate, learn, serve, and be served in sign language. Our core belief is that everyone has the right to be heard and understood!”
Launched in 2020, with bases set up in both Abu Dhabi as well as Vancouver, I Hear You was conceptualized after one of its co-founders, Mohamed Aboelazm, witnessed a car accident that involved a deaf and mute individual back in 2013. “The man was in utmost distress, as he was asking for help for his family using sign language, but Mohamed had no prior knowledge of it at the time,” elaborates Khamis. “As a result, he couldn’t understand or help him in the way he needed. That experience left him with a deep sense of defeat, and an equal determination for change. He dedicated the next two years of his life to find a way to eliminate this barrier that can hinder the most valuable of human interactions: communication.”
While the startup is still in the midst of fine-tuning its services, the business model set in place is quite clear. From a sign language keyboard offering and a sign language educational platform to the aforementioned service of translating text and voice messages to sign language, I Hear You is looking to adopt a holistic approach to this issue. “Monthly, annual, and course-based subscriptions for individuals start from US$10,” elaborates Khamis. “These will unlock various sign languages, maps, multiple sign language categories as well as sign language courses.”
Khamis further adds that the startup is also targeting corporates that aim to be more inclusive by hiring deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. “There is an insufficient number of digital platforms that teach sign language, and there is also the existing problem of a low number of deaf people being hired in organizations simply because they have a different way of communication,” she adds. “Our customized packages for corporate and government entities start from $400, and allow corporations to be more accessible by providing their services in sign language, and better connect with deaf community, among other things.”
Currently in its seed stage, the startup has already completed over 50,000 translations and transactions that have impacted the lives of more than 1000 users who use the I Hear You app. “We launched our application last year, and we are currently getting customer feedback and comments to tailor the application to their needs,” adds Khamis. “Through this regular feedback, we are building an artificial intelligence module to enrich the user experience, and add a personal touch for each user. This module will also use a motion capture system to capture the most fascinating user details in order to provide a real and seamless experience presented through three-dimensional animations and avatars.” The business clearly has a lot in the pipeline, and Khamis is quite upbeat about the future of the startup.
However, there is one particular societal aspect that she believes still needs to be tread upon with caution. “We have found the right business environment in the UAE to shed light on the need for better sign language communication, but it is changing the perception of people and entities towards the deaf community that is still a difficult path to clear,” she says. That would perhaps explain why the I Hear You team found being a part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF) accelerator program as especially advantageous.
“We joined the MBRIF program for the same reason that we decided to launch I Hear You here in the UAE,” Khamis says. “Thanks to MBRIF, we have extended our innovative community and found like-minded peers, increased our exposure to experts and investors, and most importantly, that were aligned when it comes to impacting people’s lives.” With this, it becomes very clear that the I Hear You team has only one ultimate goal in mind: empowering the deaf community to be heard, by making sign language accessible to, and understood by, everyone.