Providing a bridge to the hearing world.
That’s how David Cowan, an Atlanta-based American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, describes his role. Through his work and energetic style, Cowan has become a driver of change and inclusivity for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.
Cowan shot to fame during a Beyonce performance at Atlanta Pride in 2019 when his extravagant body-popping moves—conveying the message of the lyrics to deaf audiences—went viral. Since then, his public profile has been growing.
Born deaf, Cowan spent his formative years struggling to communicate with peers and teachers at school. Eventually, at age 19, the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself: an offer to study at Gallaudet University in Washington DC, the world’s only liberal arts college for the Deaf and hard of hearing. Upon entering, Cowan was struck by an empowering notion: “Huh! What! Everyone signs?”
Cowan’s worldview shifted as he acquired the ability to understand, speak, and subsequently interpret ASL. After nine years, he graduated from Gallaudet with a Reverse Skills Certificate, which enables deaf individuals to work as interpreters.
We see a lot of deaf children specifically not having access to language. So, that became more of my passion: to build this bridge, to provide the kind of language access that I was denied as a child.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, the deaf world must be so quiet.’ No. We are very lively,” he laughs. But the major misconception is a matter of language: according to Cowan, ASL isn’t simply English recreated with movement of the hands and contortion of the face. He feels its unique grammatical structure shares more similarities with European Romance languages.
Cowan lauds ASL for its “richness” and describes it as a “beautiful” language with “depth, and breadth, and width.” ASL is also the prism through which the deaf understand the world. For this reason, Cowan stresses that the difference in how people who can hear and deaf persons make sense of their environment is not a matter of intelligence. “It’s because of language,” he says.
The recognition of ASL as an official language by federal governments of the US and Canada, and 45 US states, has helped create more awareness of Deaf culture across North America. Yet perhaps it is technology that has created the greatest seismic shifts in the Deaf community’s access to the hearing world.
“Technology has really helped me to grow as a person. The advent of texting, two-way video call technology, and sign language interpreters on television are particularly important innovations.”
Cowan believes assistive technologies in particular – those geared toward people with disabilities – have directly improved the quality of life for deaf and hard of hearing people.
Samsung Electronics is one of the major players in the accessible technology space. Among its latest assistive offerings are the QLED and Neo QLED television range, created with the belief that technology should be accessible for all. One of the key focus areas of the QLED television ranges is breaking down barriers for audiences with sense-oriented disabilities.
Samsung believes that “a television is a portal that can connect us to the world.” Yet it acknowledges that accessing basic television features can prove challenging for the hard of hearing, the Deaf, people with low vision, and the Blind.” Driven by the desire to ensure its best-in-class TVs are accessible for all, the Samsung QLED and Neo QLED were born.
A collective experience
Included in the QLED and Neo QLED’s assistive functionalities is a zoom option on sign language interpreters, which allows viewers to expand on-screen interpreters up to 200% of their original size. Users can also adjust their TV settings to suit their needs, including:
With Cowan spending much of the past year interpreting pandemic updates from the governor of his state, Georgia, he can see the immediate real-world benefits of such innovative technology. Take the example of enlarging on-screen ASL interpreters. “If you’re talking about emergency information—weather warnings, what to do, evacuation orders and recommendations—that is absolutely essential information and deaf people have a right to receive it at the same speed as hearing people,” says Cowan.
Samsung’s iterative assistive technology is designed to provide as many such options as possible. “We have a very clear philosophy built around human-centered innovation,” CEO H.S Kim said at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last year. “We build and create to solve problems and enhance people’s lives.”
Technology has really helped me to grow as a person.
The next leap
Advances in technology and society are often one and the same: innovation can lead to greater inclusivity, which, in theory, balances the equation for everyone involved. Cowan echoes this sentiment.
Because of technology, our access is becoming more equivalent. That’s leveling the playing field.
According to JH Han, Samsung’s President of Visual Display Business, Samsung levels the playing field through its “relentless pursuit for innovation to meet consumers’ ever-changing needs”. He also noted, “Samsung has made substantial breakthroughs as a front runner in AI technology, which we are using to enhance accessibility in our products.”
Such innovation and enhanced accessibility include offering viewing experiences catered to individual tastes and inclinations and increasing accessibility features through its “Screens for All” initiative.
Through technological innovations and government recognition of ASL as an official language in North America, the hearing world has made leaps and bounds in becoming more inclusive for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
Cowan describes these as “liberating barriers that have already been broken down.” With further iterations in the assistive technology landscape, such barriers to entry may erode entirely.
We are so grateful for this technology. It allows for freedom, allows for us to communicate… that is an amazing innovation.
75-Inch 8K TV | QN900A Samsung Neo QLED Smart TV | Samsung US
75-Inch 8K TV | QN900A Samsung Neo QLED Smart TV | Samsung US
Archival Footage Courtesy of:
All Hands On Foundation
Georgia Public Broadcasting