These Students Created Software That Could Help Millions Of Deaf People In Brazil

Three young software engineers hope to be able to help Brazil’s hearing-impaired community.
Andrew Ivo, left, and Raira Carvalho, right, are two of the creators of Librol, a translation software that renders standard
Andrew Ivo, left, and Raira Carvalho, right, are two of the creators of Librol, a translation software that renders standard Portuguese into written Brazilian Sign Language.

SÃO PAULO -- Approximately 5 percent of Brazilians have some kind of hearing impairment. Despite the widespread implementation of Brazilian Sign Language, also called Libras, in 2005, people with hearing impairments often need the help of translators to read texts, textbooks, websites and other reading material in standard Portuguese, which uses a different grammatical structure.

Hoping to improve the daily lives of people with hearing loss, three computer engineering students at Faculdade Independente do Nordeste (Northeast Independent School) in the Brazilian state of Bahia have created Librol, a software program that translates text from Portuguese to Libras.

Raira Carvalho, 19, André Ivo, 19, and Jennifer Brito, 21, believe that Librol will grant greater autonomy to Brazilians with hearing impairments. It offers a way to read and study without the presence of a human translator.

"It is the only software that translates from Portuguese into Libras, from text to text. There is no other translation software that performs this task," Carvalho told HuffPost Brazil during Campus Party, one of the largest technology fairs in Latin America, held this year at the Anhembi stadium in São Paulo from Jan. 26 to Jan. 31. 

The software will be ready for download later this month, Carvalho said. There will also be a plug-in for browsers to allow users to translate websites and social networking sites into Libras.

According to a 2010 census, about 9.7 million Brazilians have some kind of hearing impairment -- a number that includes 7.5 million people who experience hearing difficulties and 2 million people who have a severe hearing impairment.

"Hearing-impaired people [in Brazil] learn to read and write in Libras,” Carvalho said. "They don't know Portuguese and are forced to learn to read in Libras in a way that we don't understand. We think they know Portuguese, but it is completely different.”

Carvalho explained that "if you give a deaf person a piece of paper and a pen, he or she will write in a totally different way from the way we do."

"The way they write is more objective and quicker, because you cannot create a sign for each verb conjugation," she said.

Erika Longone teaches speech therapy at the Health School at Methodist University of São Paulo. On her blog, she gives an example of the difference between a text in Portuguese and one in Libras.

"In Portuguese, the sentence 'My nephew will graduate as a journalist in December' is the same in written and oral form," Longone writes. "In Libras, though, the same sentence would be written as: 'December next nephew mine graduation Journalism!'"

With Librol, translation from Portuguese into written Libras can be done with just one click. Teachers and students with hearing impairments would be able to translate text without the help of anyone else.

"The software configures the text to Libras standard, which means removing conjunctions and leaving all verbs in the infinitive form," Carvalho said. "It is as if a translator were transmitting the signs to the program."

The three students came up with the idea of creating a translator during their last year at the Instituto Federal da Bahia (Federal Institute of Science and Technology) in 2013. One of their fellow students was deaf, and they saw how difficult it was for him to keep up during class.

"We noticed that he wrote in a different way and that teachers were unable to understand him, and he was also unable to understand them," Carvalho said.

Ultimately, their classmate dropped out before he could graduate, having fallen behind the rest of the students. That's when Carvalho, Ivo and Brito felt they had to act.

“If we created a universal translation tool, he and many other students would feel more included," Carvalho said. "Not only would he be present in the classroom, he would also be able to understand the material and stay in school."

The trio first announced the idea for this project at the Conference of the Brazilian Computer Society in Maceió in 2013. Despite positive feedback from academics and other members of the audience, they ultimately suspended work on the project until the second half of 2015. Up to that point, they'd had no real software development skills. Programming classes helped them get the software ready for launch this month. 

They are also working to implement the software on smartphones. "Our next goal is to have Librol in the Android operating system," Carvalho said. "When a hearing-impaired person buys a mobile phone, they would be able to choose between English, Portuguese or Librol, and then the operating system would be translated and adapted for the user."

She added that the software and other programs in development will be available free of charge for educators and people with hearing impairments.

This story originally appeared on HuffPost Brazil. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.