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New app helps bridge communication gap for deaf Rockwall resident

(ROCKWALL, TX – Aug. 16, 2016) Every day, the deaf and hard-of-hearing struggle to break the barrier denying them total access to a full social and professional life. But local massage therapist Jeanna’ Meade, who’s been deaf since she was four years old, overcame that obstacle when she discovered a newly-developed mobile app called Ava.

Ava (audio visual accessibility) is a free mobile app that bridges the communication gap between the deaf and the hearing by captioning conversations in real time using a mobile device’s built-in microphone to pick up what’s being said. When two or more people are signed on to the app, they can engage in conversation by either talking directly into the mic or typing what they want to say, similar to texting or instant messaging.

Ava has opened many doors for Jeanna’ and greatly improved her everyday life, to the point where she can now better enjoy things like participating in conversations and attending her local church.

“For my birthday, my friend took me out to eat and I had Ava on,” Jeanna’ said. “The waiter was making small jokes with my friend and it was all coming up on the app and I caught what was being said. I was like, wow!”

Before Ava, Jeanna’ experienced all the common frustrations and difficulties in understanding conversation. She learned sign language and how to lip read, which has helped her in one-on-one conversations and in her duties as a massage therapist at Rockwall Body and Soul Massage. During a massage, if the client is face down on the table, she tells them to move their hand or tap their foot to let her know if they need something. The body, she said, will always tell her more than people can with words.

“As a deaf person, I’m more in tune with people’s body language,” Jeanna’ said. “I pay more attention to the things that hearing people often miss, like the rise and fall of someone’s chest. Your breathing pattern tells me if you’re relaxed or not.”

While certain techniques such as reading lips and body language can often aid a deaf person in one-on-one dialogue, group conversation presents a much greater challenge for the hearing-impaired, as most find it problematic to read the lips of more than one person at a time. But with Ava, Jeanna’ said she can finally sit with a group of friends or multiple clients at a time and pick up on a majority of what’s being said.

“Instead of getting only 50 percent of the conversation, I can catch more like 90 percent of it,” she said.

Another challenge for the deaf is one which is often overlooked: participating in a multi-person conversation in a dark setting. For instance, activities like sitting outside with friends around a campfire at night or having a pleasant conversation during an evening stroll with a significant other become a near impossibility for the hearing-impaired because the darkness hinders their ability to lip read.

“For the deaf, the dark is not our friend,” Jeanna’ said, “because if I can’t see you, I can’t hear you. So it makes me both blind and deaf. It’s something hearing people never think about.”

Jeanna’ said in times where her friends would sit outside at night and talk, she would often feel left out of the conversation because she had difficulty reading lips in the dark. But with Ava, Jeanna’ said, it’s like turning on a light switch.

“With Ava, I can stay outside, too!” she said. “I can be a part of everything that’s going on.”

An avid writer, Jeanna’ also blogs every day on WordPress’s The Daily Post, where writers are given daily one-word prompts to write about. One of the more recent prompts was the word “overhear,” asking the writer to blog about the bits and pieces of conversation he/she overheard at a restaurant or similar setting. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the concept of overhearing is an impractical phenomenon, as they can only understand people who directly and intentionally speak to them.

Thanks to Ava, Jeanna’ said she can finally understand what it’s like to hear people around her who aren’t talking directly to her. She described a recent trip to Starbucks, where she was standing in line and her Ava app picked up the conversation of the people in front of her. She had experienced a concept many hearing people take for granted – unintentional eavesdropping. For the first time in her life she had actually experienced the feeling of overhearing a conversation.

The app isn’t without its faults, however, and occasionally will misinterpret audio picked up by the mic. Jeanna’ said the folks with Ava are currently working on making the app able to catch more voices and understand different speech patterns.

“Is the app perfect now? No. But it’s so much more than what I ever had. It gives me the opportunity to hear more and not feel left out,” she said.

Jeanna’ added that Ava can also benefit those who aren’t deaf or hearing-impaired.

“It’s not just for me, but for anybody who needs just a little bit of help hearing or understanding.”

For more information about Ava, visit ava.me/

Story and photo by Austin Wells, Blue Ribbon News editor.

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