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Online signing making life easier

Camera-computer service helps hearing impaired reach out

by Asako Takaguchi

Kyodo

An Internet-based sign language service launched by a university student a few years ago is finding its way into hotels, restaurants and other public places.

The service works by allowing a hearing-impaired person at, say, a shoe store, to “speak” to an interpreter via a camera-equipped computer so the interpreter can tell the clerk what the shopper wants. The clerk’s reply is conveyed by the interpreter via the computer.

The service is available through ShuR Co. in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. Junto Ohki started up ShuR in 2008 when he was a university sophomore.

Ohki, 25, founded the company to help create “a society where everyone can live without feeling handicapped.” He came to embrace the cause when he filmed a tourist with hearing difficulties, witnessing firsthand the hardships that the hearing impaired experience every day.

Ohki set up a sign language circle at his university. Fluent in sign language, familiar with information technology and studying business, he saw the chance to make an impact.

“I considered it possible to help (hearing-impaired people) address hardships as a business,” Ohki said, recalling his decision to establish ShuR.

Ohki became confident in the service when he heard that a customer who had asked a railway worker how to get to a museum also received other kinds of useful information, such as its closing time.

The service can exchange much more information and do it faster than by writing, he thought.

The service is now available at some 350 hotels, restaurants, train stations and other places. It is free of charge while interpreters are at the office.

There were an estimated 340,000 people in Japan with speaking and hearing difficulties in 2006, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Ohki is now developing an online dictionary on signing to help the hearing-impaired deepen their social participation and pursue their dreams.