Accessible Beginnings: Deaf-run Ava’s Mission for Total Inclusion

Because no one wants to be left out of any conversation.

Imagine sitting at a dinner table with your friends and family. Everyone’s eating and having a great time, jokes are made, and laughs are shared.

Now imagine that they’re all speaking in a language that’s inaccessible to you. You try to use context clues to keep up with the conversation. Still, it’s hard to know who is saying what when everyone is speaking a million miles a minute, leaving you feeling flustered, so you stop trying to engage and instead sit back.

Later your friend notices that you missed a joke and then leans over to say, “I’ll tell you later,” a genuine expression; however, you’re still left feeling excluded in the moment and perhaps for the rest of the evening. This is an instance of an exceptionally inaccessible situation where hearing people at the table unintentionally exclude Deaf or hard-of-hearing folks.

Dinner Table Syndrome

Circumstances like this are what’s referred to as Dinner Table Syndrome, a common experience for Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks. Although it’s not always pertinent to a dining situation, the sentiment behind the phrase encompasses Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks’ lack of access to communication.

Deaf blogger Ahmed Khalifa describes these experiences as trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle but, “you don’t have all the pieces,” leaving you feeling isolated, lonely, exhausted, and frustrated.

For some Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, a fully signing environment is an ideal solution to Dinner Table Syndrome. However, even when folks are willing to learn sign language in an impromptu situation, it’s virtually impossible to retain the pace of a natural conversation with a new sign language learner.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that not all Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are raised in a signing environment or have access to sign language, so having a reliable and ready-to-go solution is often necessary.

Ava was created with Dinner Table Syndrome in mind. With both the mobile and desktop applications, Ava continually works to address these inaccessibility scenarios, whether professional or social, remote or in-person.

For more information about Ava’s accessibility solutions, click here.

Ava’s Beginnings

Two of our co-founders, Thibault Duchemin and Skinner Cheng, both experienced Dinner Table Syndrome first-hand, but from different perspectives.

Thibault is a CODA (child of Deaf adults) who grew up as the only hearing person in his immediate family. As many CODAs do, he spent his childhood interpreting for his parents and sister. He witnessed his family members struggle to communicate and felt deep empathy for them, making him passionate about leveraging technology to their advantage.

Image Description: Co-founders Skinner Cheng,  CTO (pictured left), Pieter Doevendans (center), COO & Thibault Duchemin, CEO (right).
Co-founders Skinner Cheng, CTO (pictured left), Pieter Doevendans, COO (center), & Thibault Duchemin, CEO (right).

On the other hand, Skinner was born hearing but became Deaf at the age of two. He grew up in Taiwan, where he was the only Deaf person in his family, who often stepped up to help him communicate.

Skinner’s Experience Before and After Ava

We sat down with Skinner to talk about his experience navigating the hearing world as a Deaf person who grew up mainstreamed in Taiwan.

Q: So tell us about your experience with communication growing up.

My situation at home in Taiwan was not that tough for me. When my family was home, the TV was usually on, or the adults were preoccupied with taking care of the kids. There wasn’t a lot of talking involved, so I never felt awkward or anxious.

Image Description: Image of Skinner and his 9 family members sitting and standing around a black couch in Taiwan.
Skinner and his family in Taiwan

Even when I go back home and visit my sister or hang out with friends, we usually have the TV on anyway, so I just focus on that. When someone wants to talk to me, I typically try to read their lips, or sometimes my family will jump in to help facilitate communication between us.

Q: Did you ever get frustrated?

For me, I’m very used to it. The way I see it, it’s not only about myself but also my family and friends; their feelings are important as well. So I think there’s a balance to be made where people are accommodating me, and I’m also accommodating them.

In my culture, politeness is essential, so I wouldn’t walk out and leave during the middle of a dinner table conversation. I’d stay for the duration of the meal and preoccupy myself. I think it’s a give and take.

Q: What did you do to communicate before Ava?

If I was alone, I used pen and paper for the most part. And even with Ava initially, before we created Offline Mode on the Ava mobile application, it was difficult to communicate in situations where there was little or no internet connection. For example, when I went to the DMV (I’m working on getting my license!), the internet connection really sucked. In those situations, I had to resort to pen and paper.

Now, when I have a video call, the mode of communication depends on the other person. For example, with my mother, I can read her lips and understand what she is saying for the most part. However, there are some moments when I’ll miss what she’s saying, and she’ll have to type it out for me.

When I have a meal with others that I’m not as familiar with, I’ll typically use Ava on my phone. It’s a bigger help when hearing people are willing to be accommodating and focus on making an effort to communicate with each other.

Q: What does Ava mean to you?

We built Ava to address inaccessibility in multiple situations. I spend a lot of time at work, so for me, it’s the most impactful to have the luxury and privilege of experiencing accessibility built into our company practices and any interaction I have with my teammates.

Image Description: 7 of the Ava Team members standing on a beach, holding each others shoulders watching the sunset with the water in the background.
Ava teammates watching the sunset on the beach during our last team retreat before COVID

For example, it’s our practice to have everyone join using the Ava applications during team meetings. That way, I don’t have to ask for anyone to accommodate me, AND I get to see exactly who is saying what, which can be difficult when multiple people are speaking. Even more, I feel comforted to know that with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), it’s my right to have that kind of access. Overall, it makes my day-to-day a lot more manageable and productive.

Image description: In light blue bold font, “ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act.” Within the text, there are illustrations of a faceless man holding a book, a pie chart, a plant, a dollar sign, a faceless woman sitting in the D working off of a laptop, a gold coin with a dollar sign, a green check mark, and a faceless man sitting against the A holding a phone.
Under the ADA, workers with disabilities must have equal access to all benefits and privileges of employment that are available to similarly situated employees without disabilities. The duty to provide reasonable accommodation applies to all non-work facilities provided or maintained by the employer for its employees.

Accessibility for All

What can we do as allies to ensure our Deaf and hard-of-hearing friends and family members can keep up at the “dinner” table?

Skinner’s story shows us what’s more important than meeting legal requirements; we all must work towards accessibility. Even though Skinner grew up outside of the United States, his experience is universal. 466 million Deaf and hard-of-hearing people around the world have had to adapt to various communication situations.

We’re all humans and something as simple as the ability to communicate and connect makes all the difference.

Ava’s mission is to empower each and every Deaf and hard-of-hearing person so that future generations never have to deal with these uncomfortable and isolating experiences that exist because of “Dinner Table Syndrome.” We built Ava so that no one ever has to go through what our co-founders have experienced.

How Ava makes Accessibility a reality

One of the features that make Ava’s live captioning unique is its ability to highlight who is saying what. When everyone connects their device in a group conversation through Ava, the app shows what we call “speaker identification,” meaning each speaker’s name and captions are displayed and color-coded for easier viewing.

To further empower Deaf people and hard-of-hearing folks to become active participants in every conversation, we built the speech-to-text feature so anyone can type responses that can be voiced out loud. This makes any dinner table instantly more accessible.​​

Advocacy and Empowerment

We believe in access for all, regardless of your economic status. For those that are employed or students, we provide exceptional, effective captioning services (see Ava Pro and Ava Scribe) that should be covered by the employer or academic institution.

We know that that’s easier said than done, so we created an Advocacy team to empower employees and students. We educate on accessibility rights while working with workplace and school administrators to ensure that environments are as accessible as possible.

We believe that the fight for accessibility should not fall on the shoulders of those who experience accessibilities, so we put in the time and do the work to make accessibility a reality!

For those that aren’t currently employed or in school, we haven’t forgotten about you! In fact, we recently enhanced our Free plan to include unlimited captioning. If you haven’t yet, download the Ava app and try it out for yourself!

For more information about Ava’s accessibility solutions, click here.

Tell us about your Dinner Table Syndrome experience! How do you navigate these situations?