Tom Bieling is breaking the wall of deaf-blindness by helping people with and without deaf-blindness to talk to each other. He was awared the title Innovator of the year in 2014 by the Falling Walls Lab. Since then, his idea has evolved into a real business project that has the potential of changing the lives of thousands of people that belong to a marginalised minority. We caught up with him in our Berlin office.
Falling Walls: Tom, you want to break down the wall of social isolation of deaf-blind people. How are you doing that?
Tom Bieling: By making it possible for people with deaf-blindness to communicate. Imagine you could not hear nor talk nor see. How would you communicate? Some deaf-blind people do it by touching each other’s hand and drawing into the palm of the other person. The problem is: only few people know the alphabet.
Falling Walls: Which alphabet?
Tom: The Lorm alphabet. It was invented 150 years ago and is named after the inventor Hieronymus Lorm. The letter A is at the top of the thumb. If I swipe down from the top of the middle finger to the bottom of the palm, this is the letter L. There are 26 characters plus a few special signs. And it works well, people who lorm can do it very fast, as fast as we speak.
Falling Walls: But other people don’t know the language and the alphabet?
Tom: Exactly. Not many people know how to lorm, because the group of deaf-blind people is quite small, around 3.000 to 6.000 people in Germany. The people who lorm are the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters, the care-takers, the doctors, and maybe some deaf-blind friends. So, people who are deaf-blind have few people to communicate with and live very isolated.
Falling Walls: And this is where your research comes into play. What are you doing?
Tom: With my team at the UdK we developed a glove, a wearable communication device, that can transform the lorm alphabet into text messages. It enables deaf-blind people to communicate with people who are not deaf-blind and don’t know how to communicate by touch.
Falling Walls: How does that work?
Tom: The glove has a lot of sensors in it that recognize where I touch them. Those sensors digitalize the information into spoken text or a text message. That way you can compose your message in your own hand. The glove makes it possible to send and receive messages and to translate them from lorm to other languages and back.
Our research also solves another problem: The lorm system does not work over distance. If we lived in different cities, we could not communicate. With the glove you can send a message to the other end of the world, say to someone in Sydney. And you can tell or rather write your story to more than one person. Even if you are sitting in one room you would normally only lorm to one person. Wearing the glove, you can chat with more than one person simultaneously.
Falling Walls: Communication is one great purpose of the glove. I imagine that it can also be used to take note for yourself?
Tom: Absolutely. Someone who did know how to write before could maybe still make a note to themselves. But, how do you read the note? You would need someone that would lorm it to your hand again.
Falling Walls: Is the glove already available?
Tom: Not yet, it is still a research project. The hand is a very complicated part of the body to construct with all the moving fingers. Plus: It should for example be able to touch and hold a glass to drink from.
Falling Walls: Where did you get the inspiration to work on this specific project?
Tom: I have worked in human-computer-interaction for many years now. Most of the projects and devices that are being produced are oriented to a majority of people. That makes sense. But a side effect is that people who are already in a marginal position in our society will be even further excluded – excluded by technology and by design. So, I started to change the perspective. My approach is to actually focus on these marginal positions first. Instead of asking, how we could make certain technologies more accessible to – let‘s say – blind people, I became more interested in the question: how should a technology, a computer, a smartphone be made, if all of us were unable to see. What should a car be like, if there was nobody at all who had arms to use a steering wheel or the hand-break. I have been conducting many participatory projects and had an interesting insight: what all results of the projects seem to have in common is that they do not only serve specific needs of certain groups of people but things become much more usable, much more accessible to all of us.
We might want to call this approach design for inclusion. However, it must become clear, that the first step should actually be a design through inclusion. If we do not consider all people in the very first moment of our conception, it will always stay that way. That we will come up with things for a so-called majority of people, and then maybe try to adopt these things for the “rest”. So instead, we should put inclusion first, because inclusive processes lead to more inclusive results. It may also lead to a new or different understanding of dis/ability. And ideally it may lead to a better design of inclusion.
Falling Walls: What happened after Falling Walls 2014?
Tom: The conference gave me and my research a huge push. It is great to know that there are some people outside of your bubble that think that you are working on a useful project. You don’t get that feedback in research very often. Also, it is quite unusual that there is a prize money. And finally, the Falling Walls Lab is just something that I am proud to be a part of.