Avatars not the way forward in signing

19th October 2007 at 01:00

We were interested to read in The TESS (September 21) about the project to develop a set of standard signs to allow deaf students access to their exam papers.

We welcome the SQA's initiative in harnessing computer technology, but do not accept this is the best way forward. No matter how good an avatar, it cannot replace a real person signing in British Sign Language.

Avatars cannot properly display the vital aspects of BSL, such as mouth movements, facial expressions, eye gaze, hand and body movements. To leave out any of these will be akin to dropping some vital sounds from speech or letters from written English.

We accept there are shortages of BSLEnglish interpreters, regional signs and evolving signs for new words. However, we do not accept the answer is to use avatars.

Furthermore, there is still an issue of marking exam papers that were signed in BSL. How can avatars check that these papers contained correct answers?

In 2003, the Scottish Council on Deafness brought together a number of teachers and BSL experts to meet representatives from SQA, the Scottish Executive and HMIE to resolve these issues. It was evident from this that teachers badly needed BSL resources so that they could use appropriate signs for different subjects. When these are developed, interpreters will learn these signs and be able to translate exam papers.

This year, under the auspices of the Scottish Sensory Centre at Moray House, deaf and hearing teachers of deaf children and BSL experts have been working to produce glossaries for physics, chemistry and biology. When this is completed by the end of the year, teachers and interpreters will be able to access them via the internet.

We visualise that the SQA will use either a deaf BSL user or a BSLEnglish interpreter to translate exam questions which are distributed via DVD to pupils. Seeing exam questions translated by a real person will be more natural and easier to follow than trying to guess what an avatar is asking.

Lilian Lawson, director, Scottish Council on Deafness

Graham Turner, Heriot Watt University

Rachel O'Neill, Edinburgh University.

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